Romney's Cash Beckons Iowans To Straw Poll

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney visits the Wilton Candy Kitchen in Wilton, Iowa, in the run-up to the straw poll. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 10, 2007

DES MOINES, Aug. 9 -- As thousands of Republican activists prepare to descend on Ames, Iowa, tomorrow for the straw poll meant to gauge support for the GOP's presidential contenders, the event has all the markings of a historic mismatch.

One candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has assembled an unrivaled operation for the event: a statewide corps of 60 "super-volunteers," who have been paid between $500 and $1,000 per month to talk him up; a fleet of buses; more than $2 million in television ads in Iowa; a sleek direct-mail campaign; and a consultant who has been paid nearly $200,000 to direct Romney's straw poll production, which will include barbecue billed as the best in the state.

Facing off against this are a half-dozen candidates whose combined Iowa expenditures through the end of June did not match the $1 million Romney had spent by that point, not including his many TV ads. Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor, advertised in the Denison Bulletin & Review at a cost of $297. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has been luring voters to Ames by sending out "brown bracelets" to wear around town ("a great conversation starter with friends and neighbors"). Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) is offering a tour of Washington -- dinner included -- to anyone who brings 25 friends to Ames.

It was not supposed to play out this way. Romney's vast investment in the straw poll was designed to outmuscle former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the GOP's first real contest of the election, and to give Romney a needed early boost as he works to build national recognition. But his preparation may have been too impressive for his own good. Watching Romney spend so much, Giuliani and McCain dropped out of the straw poll in June. Romney plunged ahead anyway, setting up a mismatch of almost Gulliverian proportions.

Held at Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, the straw poll has traditionally been intended to bring the state's Republicans together in the summer before the state's pivotal midwinter caucus, raise money for the state party and give an early sign of which candidate has the strongest organization.

But with so much money flowing, it is becoming harder to justify the straw poll as a reflection of voter sentiment, said Dave Roederer, the chairman of McCain's campaign in Iowa. Last year, when he was deciding whose campaign to join, he met with Giuliani, who was aghast at the practice of campaigns paying the state party for the $35 tickets that voters need to enter the poll.

" 'In New York, we call that a shakedown. What do you call it here?' " Roederer recalls Giuliani asking. "And I said, 'Well, I guess we call it a fundraiser.' "

Romney, a former venture capitalist and multimillionaire who has lent his campaign $9 million of his own money, has hired buses to travel the state, picking up supporters. It will cost his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the entry fee when they arrive. Romney snared the prime spot for his tent -- space at the event is auctioned off by the state GOP -- reportedly by bidding $10,000 more than rivals.

Aides will not reveal details about his spending, including how many of the tickets Romney will purchase. (Every Iowan with a ticket can vote, though historically not everyone does. President Bush bought 11,000 tickets for his supporters in 1999. About 7,400 of them voted for him.)

But rival campaigns report seeing multiple, glossy -- and expensive -- mailings during recent weeks. "Glossy, big, die-cuts," one staffer said. "Autopen stuff. Really high-quality, high-class mail. They are filling Iowans' mailboxes."

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by Giuliani advisers predicts that Romney could draw as many as 24,000 people and beat his nearest competitor by 8 to 1. "The Iowa staff is massive compared to others competing in Ames," the presentation states, "and the addition of staff and volunteers from around the country will make this a massive effort."

A Democratic source who has tracked Romney's ad buys said Romney had spent about $2.4 million on TV ads in Iowa, beginning in February and running consistently since May. The source estimated Romney had spent an additional $2.5 million on campaign materials other than television in the state.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company