WASHINGTON — As Sen. Sam Brownback had hoped, the headlines after Saturday's Republican straw poll in Iowa were about how a social conservative candidate had upstaged the victor.
The media called that candidate "the biggest winner" in the early test of the presidential field. It praised his shoestring campaign. A page-one story in the New York Times said the candidate was now getting "fresh attention."
But for the senator from Kansas, there was just one problem: Those headlines weren't about him. They were talking about another social conservative, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He finished second behind top vote-getter Mitt Romney and ahead of Brownback by less than 3 percentage points.
"The battle to watch is going to be between Huckabee and Brownback to see which one can consolidate the social conservatives," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Given the strength of that bloc, the candidate who wins enthusiastic backing will be formidable, Laudner said.
Both Brownback and Huckabee need the attention the Ames straw poll can bring and the political contributions that can follow. The candidates are generally close philosophically, but very different on the trail.
Brownback is soft-spoken and thoughtful. Huckabee, a former preacher, is animated. The Wall Street Journal called him "the guitar-picking former governor of Arkansas," in the folksy way the media often cast Southern politicians.
If Brownback was feeling disappointed by falling behind Huckabee, he didn't show it.
"I feel good," he said Monday as he boarded a plane for New Hampshire, another of the early contests. "We've got a ticket to the caucus. The third place is above expectations."
Some local GOP officials had predicted he'd finish fifth, Brownback said.
"I've said all along, you've got to get in the game in Iowa, stay in in New Hampshire and win in South Carolina," he said. "I'm hopeful this can start to get us in the game that will help us fund-raise."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, won with 32 percent in an 11-candidate field. But several marquee Republicans were no-shows: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and potential candidate Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee. The political chemistry could be totally different on caucus night in January.
Winners of the GOP nomination going back several decades have always finished in the top three in Iowa.
Given that, political experts said Brownback needed a distinct boost coming out of the straw poll. With Huckabee surging past him, he didn't get it.
"This was a distinct defeat for Brownback," said Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. "I thought it was a bit of an upset."
Brownback's camp wouldn't say how much it spent on Saturday's straw poll, but insiders said Brownback made a considerable effort that included prime real estate for his campaign tent outside the straw poll site.
"If you're in (Brownback's) position, you hoped to finish second," said Don Kass, GOP chairman for Plymouth County, Iowa. "This is a big boost for Mike Huckabee. It doesn't really hurt Brownback, but I don't think it helps him a lot, either."
John Utz, the Wright County GOP chair, said Brownback was "headed down" largely because of his stand on immigration. Brownback backed the immigration bill that included a path toward legalization for illegal immigrants in the country.
"It's had some impact, no question," the senator said.
(Kraske reports for the Kansas City Star.)