Election 2008

Romney Pins Early Hopes on Iowa Straw Poll

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the favorite as Iowa Republicans participate in a straw poll on presidential candidates. But the race for second place could have major implications for many hopefuls.


Today in Iowa, voters will gather at a hotel in the city of Ames for a presidential straw poll. Only Republican candidates are involved and, in fact, two of them - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and John McCain - have decided not to take part. And the candidate who hasn't officially announced that he is in the running, Fred Thompson, won't be there either.

So who will be there? What will this straw poll mean for the winner? We turn now to NPR's David Greene, who's covering the event in Iowa.

David, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID GREENE: No problem, Scott.

SIMON: Does Mitt Romney have to get 99.9 percent of the vote to impress anyone?

GREENE: Maybe not quite that much, but he really have to have a good showing. The feeling is that Romney has poured so much money and attention into the state of Iowa. And this is, you know, likely to be the place where the first caucuses take place. And Romney has been leading in the polls. He hasn't been in front nationwide, but he's been leading here.

And so people say he really needs to have a command performance to really show that he's in control here and, of course, his campaign is playing the old expectations game. They sent out an e-mail last night saying, you know, well, attendance could be low at the straw poll this year. They said any comparison to 1999 when George W. Bush won the straw poll is not really fair because, you know, Mr. Bush was the national frontrunner at that point and Romney is not. But they are really taking this seriously, busing a ton of people in and pouring money into it. So I think they know how important it is.

SIMON: All right. There are, of course, a number of other candidates who are participating and what are their campaigns like, what are their chances reckoned to be?

GREENE: Well, they say, you know, they want to finish as high as possible, but I think most of the other candidates are expecting a Romney win and would be thrilled, I think, with a second-place finish. Tommy Thompson from nearby Wisconsin, the former governor, has even laid down the line and said that if he doesn't finish in the top two, he's likely to drop out, which could make some news tonight.

And then you have candidates like Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo from Colorado who's made immigration his issue.

So a lot of these candidates are just looking to have a solid showing and hoping that if things sort out tonight, and we only have, you know, four, five, six serious candidates, they're among them.

SIMON: What about the scores of criticism you can hear that the straw poll isn't really a test in the public opinion among Republicans, so much as it is a fundraising event for the state party?

GREENE: Yeah. It really is a strange animal. So if you come to the straw poll to vote, you have to pay $35, and that money all goes to the state party. So you're actually paying to vote. And now the campaigns will pick up the tab for a lot of people when they bus them in.

And, Scott, the straw poll sometimes can predict who's going to win the Iowa caucuses. They can predict who's going to get the Republican nomination for president, but other times it really hasn't done so.

So what a lot of people say is it's some of test of organizational strength in the state since what you're doing is running around gathering people, busing them to Ames, Iowa and getting them to vote. And it's really quite a scene in Ames. All the candidates set up tents and they do whatever they possibly can to bring voters in.

SIMON: NPR's David Greene in Iowa.

GREENE: Thank you, Scott.

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