If the Iowa straw poll Saturday revealed anything about the race for the Republican presidential nomination, it is that the race, even in Iowa, is still open.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sailed to a widely expected victory after millions of dollars and months of campaigning in the state. But in a contest the national frontrunners sat out, his showing – 31.5 percent of the 14,302 ballots cast – fell somewhere short of a mandate, analysts said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed second, with a surprising 18.1 percent, despite a shoestring effort to turn out supporters. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas was a close third, with 15.3 percent. Their relatively strong finishes are likely to renew questions about the depth of Mr. Romney's appeal to social conservatives, key to victory in the early-primary states.
"I don't think 31 percent is convincing when you don't have at least [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani or [actor] Fred Thompson competing," David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist and pollster, said of the Romney vote. "The reality is the race is still fairly wide open here in Iowa."
The straw poll, though not binding, is the first big test of GOP strength in the 2008 race. In past elections it has served to anoint front-runners and strip the field of the weakest candidates. But the decision by Mr. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, and the still-undeclared Mr. Thompson to skip it – despite plans to compete in the Iowa caucuses – cast doubt on its relevance this year.
The poll's swiftest impact may be on the bottom-rung candidates. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has said that without a first- or second-place finish, he would quit the race. He placed sixth Saturday, behind Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The straw poll, a day-long spectacle of banners, bands, and barbecue on the grounds of Iowa State University in Ames, is primarily a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, which hoped to raise $1 million this year.
The campaigns bus in thousands of supporters, generally pay their $35-a-head admission fee, and ply them with free food, music, and time with the candidates. More than anything, the poll is a measure of organizational might five months ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the first binding contest of the 2008 race.
The only real suspense Saturday was over the size of Romney's lead. Romney had led the GOP field in most Iowa polls. But he was counting on an overwhelming win Saturday to boost his national standing. In most national polls, he has been mired in fourth behind Giuliani, McCain, and Thompson.
Romney called the results Saturday night "an important victory" and told supporters in Ames that "the people of this great state have sent a message to the rest of the country."
But some political experts said that because he was running without his main rivals, he would have to crack 40 or 50 percent to show a major realignment in the race.
In 1999, George W. Bush won 31.3 percent of the straw poll – nearly Romney's share this time – but with then-major candidates Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Dole in the running and a significantly higher voter turnout.
"I think Romney has to be disappointed … given the enormous effort and money he poured into the state and his not facing any major competition," said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "I think there's clearly a concern on the part of the Christian right in Iowa that he's not one of them."
Even so, Romney has already made an issue of his rivals' absence from the straw poll, a fact not lost on the conservative voters who tend to turn out for the poll and caucuses.
"I don't think Iowans take all that kindly to being left out," Douglas Brown, a small-business owner and Brownback supporter from Alleman, Iowa, said Saturday. "It sends us a message that we're not all that important, and I think there is a consequence."
Mr. Huckabee, who was jubilant over the results, played the role of underdog in a speech before the vote, casting himself as the true religious conservative overshadowed by better-funded rivals.
"I can't buy you," Huckabee said, taking a jab at Romney, who had reportedly paid a consultant $200,000 to coordinate logistics for the event and whose tents featured a rock-climbing wall and children's play area. "I can't even rent you."
His supporters were hoping the contest would give Huckabee enough momentum to vault out of the low single-digits in national polls.
"If he could bump up into the top tier, I'd be really happy," Fran Christian, a schoolteacher from Story City, Iowa, said as she took refuge from the 90-degree F. heat in shade beside the Huckabee campaign tent. "That's what I'm here for."
•Staff photographer Andy Nelson contributed reporting from Ames, Iowa.