By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 12, 2007
AMES, Iowa, Aug. 11 -- With a convincing victory in the Republican straw poll here Saturday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney vaulted himself into the next phase of a presidential nomination battle pitting his traditional early-state strategy against a more unorthodox approach by national front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Romney's win in the nonbinding Ames contest, sealed by his appeals to the party's conservative base and generous spending all around the state, underscored his attempt to concentrate time and resources on the opening states of Iowa and New Hampshire, believing that early victories will propel him to the nomination.
Giuliani, who is at odds with GOP conservatives on abortion and gay rights, skipped the Iowa test run as part of a blueprint for victory that is less dependent upon winning the first two voting states. Giuliani strategists see a flock of big states holding their contests in late January and on the first Tuesday in February as the former New York mayor's best chance to secure the nomination.
"Romney's running a more traditional campaign to solidify social conservatives and economic conservatives," said Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "Rudy is not only trying to change the importance of the calendar but also trying to turn out a lot of moderates who don't traditionally vote in these primaries and caucuses. . . . Giuliani's strategy is not flawed -- but it's never been tested."
The GOP race remains wide open, with many Republican voters disgruntled with their choices and support for all the leading candidates remaining relatively soft and shallow. That foreshadows five months of intensive campaigning before Iowa's caucuses in January.
"Today, the people of this great state sent a message to America, and that is that change begins in Iowa," Romney told an exultant crowd of about 200 supporters after the results were announced. "We're just getting started. We've got a long way to go. . . . This message is rolling on."
Romney's victory came against a relatively weak field that did not include Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona or former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, and after he heavily outspent those who did compete. Still, the result, with Romney easily outpacing his rivals with 32 percent of the vote, helps elevate him from relative obscurity six months ago to the top tier of the GOP field -- despite his relatively low standing in national polls.
"I think today, the way it worked out, is this is really the defining moment for the base candidate," Romney adviser Tom Rath said. "With Giuliani, McCain and Thompson not here, I would make the argument that this was very definitely a test of who was strong with the base. . . . We think we can expand on that base as the conservative candidate going forward. That keeps us in this game a long time."
Romney's strategists see value in trying to narrow the competition to a race between their candidate and Giuliani, in hopes of setting up a conservative-vs.-moderate contest. But McCain and Thompson are wild cards who could redraw the battle for the nomination by the time of the Iowa caucuses.
Romney has begun to engage tentatively with Giuliani -- on issues such as immigration, health care and abortion -- although the former governor's advisers said he will draw his sharpest contrasts with the Democrats and, by implication, seek to convince GOP voters that he would make a superior nominee to Giuliani.
But Giuliani may resist being drawn into direct engagement with Romney. "They might want a one-on-one," one Giuliani strategist said. "But I don't think you can have a one-on-one this early. I feel pretty good no matter what the scenario."
Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, said his candidate may surprise people in some early contests and will be formidable in states such as Florida, California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, all of whose votes follow the first three events of 2008.
"We're confident that we will be competitive in all the early states and are putting the resources in each to be successful," DuHaime said Saturday. "At the same time, we recognize that many more states than ever before will play important roles in the nominating process."
Thompson, expected to join the race next month, has risen to second place behind Giuliani in many national polls but is unproven as a candidate. No one yet knows whether he has waited too long to announce his candidacy -- or just long enough.
His new campaign manager, Bill Lacy, promised Saturday a "nontraditional" run if Thompson enters the race. Thompson's formidable candidate skills, he said, demand a different type of campaign structure.
"It's got to be restructured and retooled," Lacy said. "It's been built like a typical presidential campaign. It has to be rebuilt to take advantage of his talents. . . . We have a 30-to-60-day window to make a lot of progress."
McCain has struggled mightily all year, but he remains a potential force because of a base of support in New Hampshire from his victory in its 2000 primary. Top advisers to Romney and Giuliani refuse to write off McCain's chances, although he has slipped significantly in the polls and has little money to fund his operations.
"We're in a decent position because of all our organizational work over the last seven months," said McCain adviser Mike Dennehy. "Not just in the early-primary states but in Florida, Illinois, California and Texas. [In] all of the February 5th states we have good organizations."
But Dennehy said McCain's hope to put himself back into the competition still depends on intensive campaigning in the early states. "As voters start paying much more attention, there's just no doubt in my mind that, when John connects with these voters and gives his message of reform, there's no doubt we'll see him pick up in the polls," he said.
Romney's advisers argued that Giuliani's decision not to compete in the straw poll is evidence that he is wary of being rejected by conservative voters. Their goal is to raise expectations for Giuliani and his team in the early states. "Sooner or later, they've got to play," Rath said.
Giuliani's campaign continues to try to tamp down expectations about how well he might do in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he is spending more and more time in those states and in South Carolina. "We're going to look to win one of those, but if we finish strongly we're in good shape," said the Giuliani adviser, who spoke about strategy on the condition of anonymity.
The quadrennial Ames straw poll has long marked a moment of transition in the Republican presidential race, but its significance this year was diminished by the decisions of McCain and Giuliani not to compete actively for the support of party activists and by Thompson's decision to delay his possible entry until September.
Part political picnic and part a test of organizational strength, the straw poll generally has helped to winnow the field of GOP candidates. Saturday's results will doubtless send some contenders to the sidelines, but any likely departures are not expected to change the overall shape of the race.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee finished second with 18 percent of the 14,302 votes cast, and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas ran third with 15 percent. Huckabee and Brownback had waged a fierce battle for the allegiance of Iowa's social and religious conservatives. An ebullient Huckabee said Saturday night that the outcome will give his campaign a significant boost and vowed to coalesce those conservatives in Iowa and other early-voting states.
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the most outspoken opponent of current U.S. immigration policy, finished fourth with 14 percent. Former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson was sixth at 7 percent. He had said he would quit the presidential race if he failed to finish in the top two, and his campaign said late Saturday that he would make an announcement within 48 hours about his candidacy.
Participation was significantly lesser than at the 1999 straw poll, which then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won, with 31 percent of more than 23,000 votes cast.