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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won an easy and expected victory in a high-profile Iowa Republican Party Straw Poll on Saturday, claiming nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival.
Romney had been expected to win the test because he spent millions of dollars and months of effort on an event that was skipped by two of his major rivals.
Romney scored 4,516 votes, or 31.5 percent, to outpace former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who had 2,587 votes, or 18.1 percent. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was third with 2,192 votes, 15.3 percent.
Announcement of the results was delayed for 90 minutes because a hand count was required on one of the 18 machines.
The biggest loser of the evening likely was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who finished in 6th place with 1,039 votes. He had said repeatedly that if he didn’t finish in the top two his campaign was likely to end. He left the event before the results were announced, and there was no announcement from his campaign.
The missing big names got only a handful of votes.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee got 203 votes. He was on the ballot, although not an officially declared candidate.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani received 183 votes and Sen. John McCain of Arizona got 101.
Romney was quick to claim the prize he had spent so much effort to win.
“The people of this great state have sent a message to the rest of the country,” said Romney. “Change starts in Iowa.”
Huckabee said his showing was impressive because he had little money to spend.
“You have taken a minimum amount of resources and made a maximum amount of gain,” Huckabee told backers.
Brownback and Huckabee had waged a fierce competition for the loyalty of influential social and religious conservatives, and Huckabee’s showing gave him new credibility.
Brownback put the best face on his showing.
“I think this is a ticket forward for us,” said Brownback. “It was pretty close. We were both right in there together.”
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo has made illegal immigration his signature issue, and scored a fourth place showing with 1,961 voltes, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has developed an Internet-driven following, came in fifth with 1,305 votes.
Filling out the field, Rep. Duncan Hunter got 174 votes, while Chicago businessman John Cox got 41 votes.
“Activists turned out in great numbers to support their candidate despite a heat index exceeding 100 degrees,” said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Ray Hoffmann.
In all, there were 14,302 ballots cast, nearly 10,000 fewer than when a similar straw poll was held in 1999. Then-Gov. George Bush won that straw poll with roughly 7,400 votes, and went on to win the caucuses and the White House.
State Republican officials had predicted as many as 40,000 activists would attend the event, but said 33,000 eventually showed up. Many of those were from out of the state and not eligible to vote in the straw poll.
Although some candidates paid for chartered buses to get hoped-for supporters to the event, and often covered their $35 ticket cost, they had no way of knowing how they would vote in the secret ballot process.
Supporters of Paul had sought to block voting, arguing that vote-counting machines had fundamental weaknesses, but a federal judge refused to grant an injunction on Friday. The matter was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which on Saturday upheld the ruling, said Matt McDermott, attorney for the Republican Party of Iowa.
The grounds around Iowa State University’s basketball arena took on a carnival atmosphere on the steamy day as candidates erected huge air-conditioned tents where they courted activists with food, prizes and plenty of rhetoric.
The National Rifle Association, anti-abortion groups and other organizations also were on hand to capture a slice of the spotlight.
Candidates consider the straw poll a vital chance to demonstrate support that could help them this winter when Iowans hold precinct caucuses, an event that also puts a premium on a campaign’s organizational skills and leads off the presidential nominating process.
For some candidates, a poor showing could prompt them to drop out of the race.
The scale of the spectacle was so immense — event organizers planned for the arrival of 375 buses — that even Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan decided to take a look. State Democrats don’t hold anything similar, arguing the event is more about raising money than selecting candidates.
McCain and Giuliani opted to skip the event, but their names were on the ballot.
McCain, campaigning in Milton, N.H., called the straw poll “a great way to raise money for the Iowa Republican Party” and said he doesn’t criticize it.
“But I think I can do my campaign and me personally better by being here in New Hampshire, talking to people, having the town hall meetings, and responding to their questions and concerns,” he said.
Voting security was tight. Before voting, activists had to show ID and tickets, both of which were scanned to ensure they hadn’t been used before. Stealing a page from the Iraqis, those casting ballots dipped their thumbs in purplish indelible ink to make sure they couldn’t vote again.
Associated Press writer Amy Lorentzen in Ames contributed to this report.