AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney won the first test of the 2008 White House race on Saturday, using a big wallet and broad organization to muscle aside a field of second-tier rivals in a low-turnout Iowa straw poll.
Romney won 31 percent of the votes cast in the nonbinding mock election, a traditional early gauge of support in the state that holds the first nominating contest leading up to the November 2008 election.
Competing on a shoestring budget, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished a surprising second with 18 percent of the 14,302 votes cast — a much smaller turnout than the approximately 24,000 who voted in the last Republican straw poll in 1999.
Romney was a heavy favorite after the other top three national Republican candidates — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — skipped the poll.
For the biggest losers, the results could mean a quick campaign exit. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who said he needed to finish in the top two to go on, came in sixth. With little money to continue, other laggards could face similar decisions.
Romney matched the 31 percent of the vote won by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in his 1999 straw poll victory on the road to the White House. He said his performance was not devalued by the absence of his top rivals or the low voter turnout in the sweltering heat.
“You’ve got to be successful in Iowa if you want to be president of the United States,” said Romney, who leads state polls but trails Giuliani and the other top contenders nationally. “I’m still an underdog.”
Without the race’s big names, a half-dozen second-tier candidates battled for second and a chance to vault into contention. Huckabee, who won with a direct appeal to Iowa’s large bloc of social conservatives, called his finish “stunning.”
“We did it with the kind of ground work that will win the caucuses in January,” he said, adding that the result validated his belief he was a top-tier contender.
“I think I always was, but maybe even you guys will recognize it now,” he told reporters.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback finished third with 15 percent, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo finished fourth with 13.7 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished fifth with 9 percent.
The area around the Iowa State University basketball arena, where the poll was held, turned into a political carnival for the day-long voting, with campaigns erecting tents and play areas for kids and enticing supporters with free food and entertainment.
Romney, who leads opinion polls in Iowa and is one of the top fundraisers in the Republican field, showed his financial and organizational muscle.
His campaign area was the most elaborate, with a rock climbing wall, play areas for kids and a vast tent to shade his supporters, many wearing yellow “Team Mitt” T-shirts. Buses carrying Romney supporters from around the state rolled into the poll grounds all morning.
Any Iowa resident at least 18 years old and with a valid ID, regardless of party, could vote in the poll, which was a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party.
A ticket cost $35, and campaigns paid the bill for as many supporters as they could afford. Romney’s rivals said they could not compete with his ability to spend millions.
“I’m not the best-funded candidate in America. I can’t buy you, I don’t have the money,” Huckabee told the Ames crowd during the voting. “I can’t even rent you.”
The results were delayed more than an hour after officials had to recount about 1,500 ballots on one malfunctioning machine, a party spokeswoman said.