Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Turkey in the straw poll?

Cue the theme from "Rocky": Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had his big moment over the weekend, making like Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, his arms aloft in triumph. In the Iowa straw poll for Republican presidential hopefuls, an early beauty contest for the GOP candidates, Romney came in first place over his challengers -- flying hiiiiigh now!

But hold up. Turn the music off. Let's dig a little deeper. Turns out that Romney finished first in a crowded field of exactly three, prevailing in this early test of popularity over former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. The other major challengers for the Republican nomination -- former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- didn't even show up. That fact calls into question just how much traction Romney really has, even using this victory as a springboard to gaining wider gravitas among Americans outside the bustling metropolis of Ames, Iowa.

Leave it to a veteran reporter to put things in perspective. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, interviewed yesterday by Tavis Smiley, called this temporary emperor on his wardrobe. Romney, Yepsen said, "got more votes than anybody else, so in that sense he can claim a victory. But I don't think it means a whole lot if you win a fight when the other champions don't get in the ring."

More important to Yepsen, and other pol watchers, was the strong second-place showing of Huckabee, whose folksy, accessible style and serious sense of humor has resulted in a lot of double takes from people once prepared to write him off. Witness the front-page story in yesterday's New York Times, a story whose focus on Huckabee's surprising finish effectively eclipsed Romney, a man the conventional wisdom said was expected to win in Iowa.

For Yepsen, Huckabee's strong second was "an indication that [he] is starting to rally some of the social conservatives" looking for a star to hitch to their wagon.

Huck's campaign in Iowa takes on even more significance when you consider the bottom-line factors involved. Romney spent in the mid- to high six figures to win the straw poll, papering the hall with his own paid staffers, there to cheer and wave the placards with the boss's name.

Huckabee spent chump change -- about $87,000 by one "Hardball" estimate -- to come in a solid second place, making his showing one of the most cost-effective presidential campaign moves since Jesse Jackson won the Michigan primary in 1988 with not much more than what he found in the couch cushions.

It's anyone's guess how Romney would have done against the other contenders. It's questionable whether McCain would have showed up even if he had showed up. Fred ("Law & Order") Thompson has been pulling his chin, waiting to officially get into the campaign for so long now, Yepsen said he suspects Thompson will peak the minute he declares. Only Giuliani had any real throw weight among the no-shows.

So really, Romney's yet to be tested. Romney's got the serious deep pockets needed to go the distance; the Boston Globe screamed his net worth, an estimated $250 million, on its front page. But the Book of Mormon still hangs around his neck as a possible political liability, one Romney may have to address in some Major Speech not unlike the one John Kennedy made in defense of his Catholicism back in 1960.

It's early yet, and way too early for anyone to coronate Mitt Romney, or for Mitt Romney to coronate himself. He's not "flying high now" so much as still flying under the radar.
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Image credit: Romney source: AnnMarie Romney; author: Parachutegurl), used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license; Huckabee: Huckabee campaign

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