AMES, Iowa — Officially, it's meaningless. No delegates were won or lost, but a straw poll of Iowa Republicans Saturday threatened to shake up the nomination campaign as it enters the fall run-up to the caucus and primary voting in January.
The event appeared to confirm the status of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a leader for his party's nomination, gave former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a leg up, and was likely to create pressure on two candidates to get out of the race — former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.
The political fallout magnified the results of an event that drew a surprisingly low turnout of the state's Republicans.
Just 14,302 people cast votes at the straw poll — 2.5 percent of the state's registered Republicans and 9,000 fewer than participated in the last straw poll in 1999.
Still, all but three of the campaigns spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to win bragging rights from the results that they can use to raise more money, or avoid the disappointment that will dry up contributions and force them out of the race. Four candidates dropped out within weeks of the 1999 straw poll.
Romney claimed a solid win with 31.5 percent of the vote.
It was stronger than his support statewide — which averages about 25 percent — but about what might be expected given the fact that he outspent rivals by a large margin and competed without his strongest rival, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"He won a decent victory against a weak field," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
Huckabee got what he was looking for, finishing second and edging out his chief rival for the support of social conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
While Huckabee could not claim a decisive win, he did edge Brownback despite Brownback's more expensive and visible campaign at the straw poll event.
Two candidates with niche messages finished fourth and fifth — Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the choice of voters most upset with illegal immigration, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the choice of libertarian minded Republicans.
For two others — former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California — their poor finish could spell trouble.
Thompson finished sixth with 7.3 percent of the vote.
Thompson's campaign on his record of reforming welfare and cutting taxes as governor and a strong message of preventive health care has not caught on with Republican voters. His campaign manager warned before the vote that Thompson "has made it clear that if he doesn't finish first or second this week in Ames, Iowa, at the straw poll, he will not go on in this race."
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California finished ninth with 1.2 percent. Hunter's message of strong support for the military and support for gun owners has not distinguished him from the field.
Three candidates who did not compete for votes at the event did not fare well with the small crowd.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson finished seventh; Giuliani finished eighth and Sen. John McCain of Arizona finished tenth.
A blend of speeches and carnival-like entertainment, the straw poll was really a fund raising event for the Iowa state Republican Party. Anyone who contributed $35 could cast a vote and many of the campaigns bought tickets for their supporters.
"I think I can do my campaign and me personally better by being here in New Hampshire, talking to people, having the town hall meetings, and responding to their questions and concerns," McCain said during a stop Saturday in New Hampshire.
The event at times took on the air of a Christian religious revival, alternately uplifting and threatening.
Brownback led supporters in prayer in sweltering heat under a white canvas tent. Huckabee jokingly cited a Biblical call for endurance in urging people to stick around for a second performance of his rock band.
On the darker side, a group identifying itself as Iowa-based U.S. Christians for Truth distributed pamphlets attacking Romney for being a Mormon.
"We strongly believe that Jesus Christ, if he were alive in the flesh and voted, would never vote for Mitt Romney under any circumstances. Mitt Romney represents Mormonism which is counterfeit Christianity, a cult," said the pamphlet.
The group also criticized divorced Republicans including Giuliani, McCain, Fred Thompson because "they can NEVER make a strong case for strong families or for strong Christian values."