The Ames Straw Poll has concluded, and the results are in. Mitt Romney won, but that was to be expected. What took many people by surprise (all but the most insightful political observers) was a strong second place showing by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. With his "back against the wall", Huckabee received a healthy 18% of the vote, well behind Mitt Romney's total, but also comfortably ahead of third-place finisher and bitter rival Senator Sam Brownback (KS). More importantly, Huckabee achieved his total without the benefits of a huge Iowa operation, all the more impressive when his main competition for the social conservative bloc, Brownback, was heavily invested in Iowa and apparently had 60-100 buses shipping in volunteers from all across the state.
So what's the overall effect? Well, Huckabee is in a really strong position. I mean, really strong. The primary barrier to his campaign was a lack of money and the perception that he was getting no traction. Well, guess what: he just got the latter, and I suspect the former will follow. Once he's established as a real player, a whole mess of the support from the social conservative base of the party are natural targets to be poached by his campaign. Does anybody think they're seriously happy with Romney, Thompson, McCain, or (shudder) Giuliani? Huckabee is the evangelicals' choice candidate now, and I suspect he's ready to start converting folks.
The three, four, and five spots were rounded out by Brownback, Rep. Tom Tancredo (CO), and Rep. Ron Paul (TX), respectively (recall that Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani all declined to participate). Brownback is in a bit of a spot here, since he appeals to the same bloc of voters as Huckabee, had a better organization going in than Huckabee, and still lost. A third place finish for him isn't exactly bad, but it's difficult to see where he goes from here. Tancredo's finish impressed Publius, who notes that he had virtually no money and thus has something else driving his campaign. That something is the rabid anti-illegal immigration stance soaring through the Republican Party. It isn't enough to drive him to victory. But it is enough to make the eventual nominee take notice--which, honestly, is probably all Tancredo was hoping for anyway. Finally, Ron Paul's finish in the top half, while somewhat surprising in its own right, is far from high enough to really make him a legitimate candidate.
Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's sixth place finish dooms his campaign, he said he needed a first or second place showing to continue.
And finally, we return to the winner, Mitt Romney. This post illustrates Romney's problem: despite having a perfectly fine, meets-expectations showing, the story is not about him. It really never could be about him: whoever finished second among the pack of dwarves trailing the main GOP pack was always going to be the subject of most of the media coverage, debating whether he should be added to the front-runner conversation. Unless Romney ran the table at the poll, there was no way that story could have been avoided. So, Romney will go into Iowa as the front-runner, but probably with a new pal to share the spotlight with. And, as I've remarked, Huckabee is in a great position to pose a serious danger to Romney's campaign.