March 12, 2006
MEMPHIS — Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts took second place yesterday in the first major Republican straw poll of potential 2008 presidential candidates, trailing only the home state favorite son, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Romney’s supporters erupted into wild cheers yesterday as the results of the poll were announced at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a gathering of Southern and Midwestern GOP leaders.
”It’s the best possible scenario for a Romney supporter to have him come in second in Tennessee,” said Nathan Burd of Ohio, who runs americansformitt.com. ”We knew that Bill Frist was going to win, but to have Romney do well in the South is such a strong statement. We’re just elated tonight.”
Frist, the Senate majority leader, handily won the straw poll, which was conducted by the political website Hotline, taking 36.9 percent of the 1,427 ballots cast. Romney led a pack of close finishers with 14.4 percent.
Senator George Allen of Virginia tied for third place at 10.3 percent with a write-in campaign for President Bush, who cannot run again because of term limits. Senator John McCain of Arizona was fourth at 4.6 percent, and Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas was fifth with 3.8 percent.
Some delegates, including many supporters of McCain, had led a campaign to urge the delegates to write-in Bush’s name to show support for the president, whose job approval ratings in the polls have been abysmal.
”Straw polls are entertaining, my friends, even extremely early ones, but we have bigger things to worry about,” McCain told the delegation. ”So if any of my friends were thinking of voting for me, just write in President Bush’s name. For the next three years . . . he’s our president, and he is the only one who needs our support today.”
But other delegates — particularly supporters of Frist — accused McCain of trying to blunt the impact of Frist’s widely expected victory in his home state, where many local Republicans in the delegation wore ”Frist is my leader” stickers all weekend.
In the end, Frist indeed took home an overwhelming victory, but the buzz advantage went to Romney, who hosted a breakfast of party leaders and spoke to the assembly Friday before leaving Memphis.
While urging the party to return to its conservative values, most delegates voiced support for the Bush administration during the conference.
Romney’s speech had stressed his record of bringing fiscal order to troubled operations and closing budget deficits without raising taxes, a theme that resonated with many delegates who said they were disillusioned with the GOP Congress’s record on government spending.
He also stressed the need to keep using military force in the war against Islamic extremists, to improve math and science education, and to preserve ”Republican values.” He cited opposing gay marriage as an example.
Many delegates had said they were impressed by Romney’s speech to the group, but doubted whether other Southerners could bring themselves to vote for someone associated with Massachusetts and Mormonism.
In yesterday’s poll, at least a sizable bloc of Southern Republicans showed that they could vote for a candidate like Romney. Several jubilant Romney supporters, who had aggressively worked the conference by handing out buttons and fliers, said they were thrilled at how well their man had done.
”This is fantastic,” said Kurt Keilhacker of Boston. ”Even evangelical Christians understand that Romney is the kind of man they want to put in office. Mitt has the values that people of faith appreciate, along with integrity and the brains to manage a complex job like the presidency.”
Romney was not present when the results of the straw poll were announced, and a spokeswoman for the governor did not return a call yesterday evening.