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Romney Hits High Note in Iowa Straw Poll

August 13, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: The change begins here tonight in Iowa. Thanks so very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Mitt Romney’s first-place finish in Saturday’s Republican straw poll in Iowa was hardly a surprise. The millionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor vastly outspent the rest of the field, devoting an estimated $2 million to $3 million to coming in first.

What’s more, his three most formidable rivals — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain, and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who hasn’t officially entered the race — all skipped the poll.

No delegates were at stake in the beauty contest, staged by the Iowa Republican Party to raise money and rally the party faithful ahead of the 2008 caucuses. The party charged attendees $35 and the candidates’ thousands of dollars for prime tent and display space.

Romney’s campaign bused in thousands of voters to Ames, paid for their tickets, and fed them free barbecue in his air-conditioned tent. By day’s end, he’d won nearly 32 percent of the 14,000 votes cast.

Second and third place went to two candidates who’d tried to portray themselves, not Romney, as the true social conservatives in the race. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee placed second with 18 percent, despite spending only $150,000.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: When you look at what we were able to achieve, it was because people came to Ames to vote for us.

MARGARET WARNER: In third place, with 15 percent, was Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who spent a little over $300,000 and relentlessly hammered Romney as out of touch with Iowa’s conservatives.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), Kansas: Mitt Romney has supported taxpayer funding of abortion. Mitt Romney recently, as recent as 2005, said he continued to take and was in a pro-choice position.

Becoming a serious contender

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
His national numbers do not look particularly strong. And yet, as a result of this, I think it's clear that he is a serious contender for the nomination.

MARGARET WARNER: The biggest casualty of the weekend vote was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who dropped out of the race entirely after placing sixth, behind Congressmen Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas.

For more on Romney's straw poll win and what it means or doesn't mean for the Republican race, we turn to Dan Balz of the Washington Post. He was in Iowa over the weekend, but joins us tonight from Manchester, New Hampshire.

And, Dan, hello.

DAN BALZ, Political Reporter, Washington Post: Hello, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: He certainly spent an unprecedented amount to win this thing. Did he get his money's worth? Did Romney get his money's worth in political terms?

DAN BALZ: Well, in a practical sense, he certainly did. I mean, money is to Mitt Romney not the big issue. He's got plenty of it to spend, and he demonstrated that in this straw poll competition.

For Romney, what was important was, a, to plant himself as the front-runner in Iowa, to make himself the candidate to beat in the opening state of the 2008 contest. The second thing I think that was valuable for Governor Romney in this is that it vaults him, in a clear sense, into the top tier of this race.

If you look at national polls throughout this year, he trails in almost every one, in third or fourth place, depending on whether Fred Thompson is in there. His national numbers do not look particularly strong. And yet, as a result of this, I think it's clear that he is a serious contender for the nomination, and I think he wanted to send that message from the straw poll on Saturday.

McCain, Giuliani skip straw poll

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
Giuliani is pro-choice, as everyone knows. Iowa's Republican electorate is very pro-life. So he also faced an embarrassment had he tried to compete there.

MARGARET WARNER: So why didn't two of the frontrunners in the national polls, McCain and Giuliani, compete? Why did they skip it? And do Iowans you've talked to think they may pay a price when the caucuses roll around?

DAN BALZ: Well, they may well pay a price, and we'll see. I think for John McCain, John McCain skipped Iowa entirely when he ran in 2000, putting all of his resources into New Hampshire, where he pulled off a big victory over George W. Bush. He had intended, I think, to compete energetically in Iowa, including the straw poll.

But earlier this spring, during the immigration debate, he found himself in real trouble in Iowa. His support just cratered in Iowa. He's now in single digits in the state. He was looking, I think, for a way to avoid a real embarrassment in the straw poll.

Rudy Giuliani I think chose not to play at the straw poll for two reasons. One is he got a later start in terms of organizing Iowa. Romney and McCain were out there last year beginning to put organizations in place, and Giuliani wasn't. He was way behind.

The second factor is that Giuliani is pro-choice, as everyone knows. Iowa's Republican electorate is very pro-life. So he also faced an embarrassment had he tried to compete there.

But I think, for Mayor Giuliani, there was another factor. He's looked at this new calendar that we're all studying for 2008, and he sees great opportunities after the early states, when Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois all hold primaries either at the end of January or early February. He thinks that's the big moment for him, so I think they wanted to save the money that it would have cost to compete in the straw poll and use it later. He fully intends, according to his campaign team, to compete in the caucuses in January.

Surprising showing by Huckabee

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
For Governor Huckabee, the competition in Iowa and the absence of Giuliani and McCain and Fred Thompson gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he has some vote-getting appeal.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the big surprise on Saturday was the second-place showing of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who along with Romney and Sam Brownback were competing for the votes of social conservatives. What does his second-place showing say? And what potential impact could it have?

DAN BALZ: Well, he has performed well in almost every debate. Most of the focus, obviously, is on the top-tier candidates, and Governor Huckabee has been trying to become a top-tier candidate. For Governor Huckabee, the competition in Iowa and the absence of Giuliani and McCain and Fred Thompson gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he has some vote-getting appeal.

And he was in a very serious competition with Sam Brownback from Kansas for the votes of religious and social conservatives. I think, as a result of his victory in the straw poll, coupled with the fact that he has moved up in polls in Iowa -- he's still well behind Romney and Giuliani, but he has moved up there -- I think this will give him a chance to raise some money, it will raise his visibility, and it will allow him to make the argument that he is the real credible conservative candidate in this race, when most of the top-tier candidates have some question mark over their heads on that front.

Competing for social conservatives

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
Some time later this fall, Governor Romney's likely to get a more serious attack from somebody who's a lot better funded. And I think that flip-flop issue will come back to him.

MARGARET WARNER: So can the results of this, are they a barometer in any way of where the social conservatives nationwide are likely to go? Does it show, for instance, that Romney has or has not put to rest the charge that he flip-flopped on abortion?

DAN BALZ: I think that charge will stay with him well into the fall and early into next year. What you did not see in Iowa is a real, sizable attack on him. You mentioned in the piece that Senator Brownback was criticizing him. But the truth is, as we all know, he had very little resources to do that.

Some time later this fall, Governor Romney's likely to get a more serious attack from somebody who's a lot better funded. And I think that flip-flop issue will come back to him.

But I think they saw Iowa as an opportunity to begin to coalesce conservative voters. They would like to get that done before Fred Thompson gets into the race. They would like people to believe that they are the candidate of the conservatives.

He'll have very serious competition for that from the likes of Governor Huckabee and potentially from Fred Thompson, but I think they saw Ames as way to begin to say, "We're the real conservative in this race, not Mayor Giuliani."

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, thanks.

DAN BALZ: Thank you.