Optimism, chaos & confusion

The Iowa Straw Poll has left the Republican presidential contest as crowded and chaotic as the carnival-like crowd scene outside the building where the votes were cast.

As expected, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the most votes in Saturday’s symbolic test of campaign organizing strength in this first-in-the-nation caucus state.

But in the more critical expectations game, there were so many other declarations of victory that the GOP field is likely to stay as muddled as ever.

“It’s a big question mark at this point,” said Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

Romney was the only top-tier candidate who competed in Saturday’s beauty contest in Ames, so his 31.5 percent tally was greeted with a yawn — or worse — by some analysts.

“I think the results yesterday may actually have opened up the caucuses on the Republican side a little bit,” said political science professor Peverill Squire, a longtime Iowa analyst soon to be heading to the University of Missouri. “I sort of took (Romney’s) performance yesterday as weaker than I had anticipated. Therefore, some of the other candidates may have come up with some reason to make big efforts in Iowa.”

Squire was alluding to two big, national names who sat out the contest: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is expected to officially launch a candidacy by Labor Day.

The straw poll did give one second-tier contender a claim of momentum.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has been fighting an uphill battle with low name recognition and fewer funds than others, including fellow social conservative Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

But Huckabee slipped past Brownback and finished second to Romney, even though the only time his face appeared in television ads was in attacks from the anti-tax organization Club for Growth.

“The bigger story is that we did it without a dime of paid advertising,” a jubilant Huckabee told a mob of reporters in the minutes after the results were announced.

Huckabee said he has considered himself the “top-tier” contender that had yet to be discovered before Saturday night.

“I think maybe even you guys will believe it now,” he said with a smile.

But now, with former Sen. Fred Thompson’s entry looming, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich still flirting with a possible candidacy, Huckabee has to translate his surprise — but still distant — second-place showing into desperately needed campaign cash.

On paper, Brownback finished just 395 votes behind Huckabee. But since both men are vying for the same constituency of religious conservatives, his third-place showing already was being portrayed as a major disappointment.

As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote: “This is a major setback for Brownback and could well lead to his departure from the race in the near future.”

Brownback already is trying to squelch that impression, calling his third-place showing “a ticket to the Iowa caucuses.”

So he’s not going anywhere. And neither is fourth place finisher, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has eclipsed his more senior congressional colleague, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, as the voice of the border-control movement in the White House race.

“Hold onto your seats…we’re blasting off!” Tancredo wrote in a fundraising plea to supporters after the straw poll.

So he’s not going anywhere, and neither is fifth-place finisher Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who had an army of out-of-state supporters making a lot of noise on Saturday.

The straw poll traditionally has been a weeding-out event, but the only endangered species on the morning after were sixth-place finisher, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson — who said he had to win, place or show to continue his campaign — and Hunter, who finished a distant ninth place, gaining fewer votes than two of the men who didn’t even compete: former Sen. Fred Thompson and Giuliani.

Hagle said Romney has a legitimate argument that he did all he needed to do: flex some organizational muscle and win the first test in the first caucus state.

But his vote total, lower than then-Gov. George W. Bush’s at the straw poll in 1999, combined with the low overall turnout at Saturday’s event, should be “worrisome” for him and other Republicans, Hagle said.

Romney won, “but there seems to be a lot of ambivalence among the voters, demonstrated by the fact that he only got (just over) 30 percent,” Hagle said. “There are a lot of folks who didn’t go to this thing, and we don’t know where they’re at.”

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at)shns.com. Read his “Back roads to the White House” blog at: http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com/denver/sprengelmeyer/ )

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