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."
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Who knows what this could portend? A strong start for Romney in Iowa could help to propel him along and raise him above the current perception that Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are the Republicans to beat.