Romney won the Iowa straw poll Saturday
AMES, Iowa (CNN) –Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Iowa Republican straw poll Saturday and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had a surprise second place showing, giving both presidential candidates a boost six months before the state holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Romney received 4,516 votes to Huckabee's 2,587, while Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback came in third place with 2,192 votes of the 14,302 ballots cast. (See full results below)
But Romney's victory was slightly overshadowed by Huckabee, low turnout by GOP activists and the absence of several opponents. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson chose not to invest the financial resources needed to win the contest. Still, their names appeared on the ballot and all received votes.
"It is a win," David Yepsen, political columnist with The Des Moines Register, said of Romney. "But it is somewhat shallow, because his big opponents didn’t show up.
"What does it mean to get in the ring and your opponents don’t even show up," added Yepsen, who is considered the dean of the Iowa political press corps.
Romney immediately claimed victory when the results were announced.
"Today, the people of Iowa took the first step towards bringing change to Washington," he said in a statement released by his campaign. "This important victory sends a signal to grassroots Republican activists across the country that we are working hard to earn their support, and that we are ready to begin the work of strengthening our economy, our military and our families."
Huckabee appeared almost stunned by his second place showing when he greeted the media following the announcement of the results. He had been saying for months that he would drop out of the race if he did not perform well in the straw poll.
"Obviously, this was an incredible day and victory for us," Huckabee said. "It shows the kind of momentum that we were hoping for and needing. I think what happened for us today was stunning."
He added, "For us, it's really that we over-performed. I think if you look at those even above us or below us there was a lot who underperformed. If you think about how little money we had. How little we spent to get here it says more than being in second place."
The straw poll was held on the campus of Iowa State University and is viewed as a test of organizational strength in Iowa. In almost every case, the candidates paid the $35 per person fee charged to vote in the straw poll. It is a major fundraiser for the state Republican Party.
The candidates set up tents outside Hilton Coliseum to feed supporters, hand out campaign literature, t-shirts and stickers as well as allow people to escape the blazing sun.
Romney and Brownback invested the most resources in the straw poll by paying for the privilege to erect massive tents near the voting entrance. The former Massachusetts governor had a large outdoor stage with bands and other entertainment performing throughout the day. Brownback offered air conditioning in his tent that featured a stage for entertainment and a moon bounce and other activities outside for children. Huckabee, like the other eight candidates competing in the straw poll, had much smaller operations scattered around the back of the coliseum.
In the middle of the day, the candidates each took the stage inside the coliseum to talk about their vision for America and urge attendees to vote for them.
Yepsen said it is clear that Huckabee defeated Brownback in their battle for support of social conservatives, who play an influential role in the GOP caucuses.
"He was in a competition with Brownback for the social conservatives, and he did a better job," said Yepsen, who did note though that Brownback's "third place finish is not bad."
Perhaps anticipating a poor showing at the event, California Rep. Duncan Hunter told CNN hours before the results were announced that he planned on continuing his bid for the White House. He came in ninth place with 174 votes.
"I think for the guys who have spent a lot of money here getting their message out … they are going to have to judge whether or not they have done as well as they want to do," Hunter said. "For us, we consider this a start of a marathon. This is just the tip off."
In the next 24-72 hours, the GOP presidential field could be winnowed if some of the candidates believe Saturday's showing is an indicator of the lack of support for their campaign.
A senior McCain advisor released a statement shortly after the results were announced to declare his decision to skip the straw poll does not mean he will try to win Iowa in January.
"Over the past eight months John McCain has met with Iowans across the state, built a broad base of support, and demonstrated why he is the most prepared candidate to lead America from day one." said campaign manager Rick Davis. "We are fully committed to competing successfully in the Iowa caucuses, and we look forward to continuing to campaign aggressively in the Hawkeye State."
But Romney and Huckabee both said the absence of McCain, Giuliani and Thompson was an acknowledgement they could not win the straw poll.
"Their decision not to compete here was not a decision based on strength," Romney said at a news conference. He added, "The guys who decided not to play would have played here if they thought they could have won."
A malfunctioning voting machine delayed the release of the results by more than one hour, as GOP officials were forced to count more than 1,500 ballots by hand.
– CNN's Mark Preston, Paul Steinhauser and Chris Welch