Bonna de la Cruz
March 12, 2006
MEMPHIS — Republicans last night crowned an early front-runner in the race to be their next candidate for president: Bill Frist.
But the results of one of the first straw polls of the 2008 election may be nothing more than wishful thinking for Tennesseans at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.
A movement by some to focus on the 2006 mid-term elections and unite behind President Bush by writing in his name on the straw-vote ballot took some steam out of the informal poll.
And supporters of the U.S. Senate majority leader may have stacked the vote, bringing in three busloads of Republicans yesterday from Middle Tennessee to cast ballots, eat barbecue at the Rendezvous and attend Frist’s afternoon speech.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney vaulted to second place through a last-minute grass-roots efforts organized by a Middle Tennessee couple and college students from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and other campuses.
Third-place was shared by U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and the Bush write-in effort, while U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the best-known of the potential 20008 candidates, placed fifth.
McCain and Allen virtually took themselves out of contention.
McCain urged his supporters to write Bush’s name on the ballot to show support for the war in Iraq, while Allen yesterday noted Frist was on his home turf and said, “I don’t care one way or another.”
The four-day conference, a meeting of 2,000 Republicans, ends today.
Yesterday’s straw poll was sponsored by The Hotline, a nonpartisan, online daily briefing. Ten names were on the ballot; six of those people appeared at the meeting at the downtown Peabody Hotel.
Romney’s supporters got a late start.
“We started putting this together about three weeks ago,” said David French, 37, a lawyer in Columbia, Tenn., who with his wife, Nancy, created www.tnformitt.com.
Their supporters had ballcaps, T-shirts, stickers and other paraphernalia that said “Romney” with the “o” filled in with the Tennessee flag’s three stars.
Nearly all of Romney’s votes came from their group, who picture him as the alternative to McCain for evangelical Christians, French said. Romney supporters in Tennessee helped pay the way for more than 50 college students, said Dawn Meling of Pennsylvania, a recent college graduate and Romney supporter.
“Frist is a good man, a good senator, but Gov. Romney is a better leader to be the president of the United States,” French said.
Of 1,427 votes cast, Frist got 37%. Romney got 14%, Allen and the Bush write-in got 10% each, and McCain drew nearly 5% of the vote, according to The Hotline.
Of Frist’s 526 votes, 82% were cast by Tennesseans. Another 313 Tennessee voters did not choose Frist first.
“We’re pleased at the grass-roots activists,” said Chip Saltsman, a Frist adviser. “Now we have to work for 2006.”
Following McCain were Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and a category of “other” write-ins, then New York Gov. George Pataki, a write-in for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Frist played down the significance of the poll all week but yesterday admitted he wanted to do well.
In a speech during the day, he said, “Now is the time to reaffirm our roots as the party of fiscal discipline, beginning with the line-item veto.”
John Balbach of Ann Arbor, Mich., handed out “Write-in President Bush: Focus on 2006″ leaflets during voting.
“The poll numbers of the president have been down. We’re in the middle of a war on terror,” Balbach said. “I want a headline to come out of this that says, ‘GOP in Memphis unite behind the president’.”
Sherry Kelly of Brentwood, a retired teacher from Belmont University, voted for Frist and wrote Bush in at second place, she said.
Geneva Williams Harrison said she wrote Bush in as winner with Frist second, but the administrative assistant at the Maryville, Tenn., fire department, and former Blount County commissioner, said it was speaker J.C. Watts who won her heart when the former Oklahoma congressman talked about diversifying the party.
She’s one of just three African-American Republicans in Blount County, along with her two brothers. “President Bush is reaching out to us, and we’re growing,” Harrison said.