Carol Platt Liebau: Straws in the wind

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Straws in the wind

This is guest opiner Jack Kelly.

The only Republican who can be smiling inside after the Iowa Straw Poll is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished a strong second with 18 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney's 31.5 percent, despite having spent almost nothing to round up votes. Huckabee's chances of winning the presidential nomination remain zero, but he's now in a category by himself between the people who actually have a chance to win the presidential nomination, and the sad sack also rans. Huckabee's already decent prospects for becoming the vice presidential nominee have improved substantially.

Rudy Giuliani is entitled to half a smile. To the extent that Huckabee approaches first tier status, he gathers social conservative votes that otherwise would go to Mitt or Fred Thompson. I don't really expect Huckabee still to be in the race when the primaries actually begin, but if he is, Rudy will benefit from his presence.

Mitt won, and a win's a win. But he's spent a ton of money in Iowa, and with the three candidates who are ahead of him in most national polls sitting this one out, getting less than a third of the vote against this sad sack field has to be something of a disappointment. Yeah, he got about the same percentage of the vote that George W. Bush got in 1999, and won by a larger margin than Bush did that year over Steve Forbes, but I think he needed between 35-40 percent of the vote to look impressive.

The best thing about the straw poll is that it's likely to narrow the field, so future GOP debates will be less of a cattle show. I first met Tommy Thompson when he was in law school at the University of Wisconsin and I was a freshman there. I love Tommy. He was one of the best governors in the history of the Badger state, and a fine Cabinet secretary. But his presidential campaign has been an embarrassment. I'm glad that embarrassment is coming to an end. Sam Brownback spent heavily in Ames, hoping to finish second behind Romney. Finishing behind Huckabee (with 15.3 percent of the vote) has gotta be a disappointment. But Brownback, alas, is probably too stupid and too egotistical to read the handwriting on the, wall. Ron Paul's 9.1 percent of the vote would be discouraging to rational people, but if Paul and his supporters were rational, they wouldn't hold the views they do.

About 10,000 fewer people voted in this straw poll than in 1999, which could be another sign of slumping GOP morale. But there are four mitigating factors:

First, with Giuliani, Thompson and McCain skipping Iowa, there was even less meaning than usual to this essentially meaningless contest.

Second, it was awfully hot in Iowa over the weekend. Why bother to endure the heat just to take part in an essentially meaningless contest?

Third, the Iowa GOP actually tried hard to make sure only Iowans voted in the straw poll, and that they only voted once. It's important to remember the Straw Poll began as a fund-raising gimmick for the Iowa GOP. In the past, anybody who paid the fee could vote, and candidates bussed in supporters from neighboring states to stuff the ballot boxes. If the ballot security measures that were in place this time had been in place in 1999, the difference between that year's vote total and this woul be substantially smaller.

Fourth, a year ahead of a presidential election, there is customarily more energy in the out party than in the in party. In 1999, Republicans were suffering the 7th year of Bill Clinton in the White House. In 2007, it's the GOP that's the in party.

Still, though excuses can be made for it, the turnout stank.


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