AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and a handful of lesser-known rivals hunted for votes in Iowa on Saturday at an informal straw poll that offered the first big test of the 2008 White House race.
Iowa Republicans began lining up at mid-morning to vote in the nonbinding mock election, with Romney an overwhelming favorite to win and several candidates slugging it out for a second-place finish they hope will vault them into contention.
“We’re going to send a message to the entire nation that we want to see a Washington that can actually get the job done,” Romney told supporters, many wearing yellow “Team Mitt” T-shirts, shortly after voting started.
The voting continued until 6 p.m. CDT (2300 GMT), with the results announced at 7 p.m. CDT (2400 GMT).
The pressure is on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the leader in Iowa state polls, to win big. The other three top national contenders -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- decided to skip the poll but are still listed on the ballot.
The straw poll, an Iowa tradition since 1979, has been an early test of a campaign’s organizational strength in the state that holds the first nominating contest. It has often thinned the field of weaker candidates and given the winner at least a temporary shot of momentum.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have been prominent in the battle with Romney for the support of Iowa’s large bloc of social conservatives. They were among the second-tier candidates who hoped the poll would give them a chance to shine.
During a series of speeches to poll-goers inside Iowa State University’s basketball arena, the candidates laid out their case for why they would be the best nominee for Republicans in the November 2008 election.
“The people of Iowa know that elections and the future of our country are based on principles, not on personalities,” Brownback said.
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has centered his campaign on his hard-line immigration views, promised to crack down on illegal immigrants.
“We will secure the borders of America and never give amnesty to illegal aliens,” Tancredo said. “We will deport people who are here illegally because it’s the law.”
Buses of supporters from around the state rolled into the grounds around the arena carrying supporters for Romney, Brownback, Huckabee and others. Each campaign set up a tent in designated areas and offered free food and entertainment.
Volunteers for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian who registers in the low single digits in polls but has a large Internet following, swarmed the poll grounds.
Party officials said more than 33,000 people had entered the grounds by midday, although vote totals were unknown.
Romney’s area, twice the size of many of his rivals’, featured a rock climbing area and kids’ play area, with two tents giving supporters respite from the broiling sun.
Any Iowa resident at least 18 years old, regardless of party, can vote in the poll, which is a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party. A ticket to vote costs $35, and many campaigns were footing the bill for as many supporters as they could afford.
“I can’t buy you, I don’t have the money,” Huckabee told the Ames crowd. “I can’t even rent you.”
For the biggest losers, the poll could mean a quick exit. In 1999, four Republicans dropped out of the race within weeks of losing the straw poll to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush as he started his road to the White House.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has said anything less than a top two finish will finish him, and several other candidates could face similar decisions.
“We’ve got a tremendous opportunity to show the country that Iowa, not the political pundits in Washington, make the selection,” Thompson told supporters jammed into his tent.