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In the first event of the 2008 presidential run for the GOP, Bill Frist won the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll as expected, with 36% of the vote going to the Tennessee native in Nashville. However, instead of supposed frontrunner John McCain or southern favorites George Allen or Mike Huckabee grabbing the second spot, Governor Mitt Romney of Massachussetts rolled in right behind Frist with 14%:
Frist won 36.9 percent of the 1,427 ballots cast here by delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
The shocker of the evening was that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney placed second, besting far better-known rivals Arizona Sen. John McCain and Virginia Sen. George Allen. Romney finished with 14 percent of the vote.
Third place was shared by Allen and President Bush, each of whom won 10.3 percent of the ballots cast. Bush, who of course is not eligible to run again for president, was the write-in candidate that McCain was pushing through the weekend.
I am somewhat surprised that Frist did as well as he did, even with the home-turf advantage. He has not provided the kind of tough leadership that many expected when he took over for Trent Lott. The long delay in moving judicial nominees in 2005 allowed momentum to build for Harry Reid's obstructionism and McCain's defection on the solution to it. He has appeared weak and indecisive in battling Reid, and made the lightweight replacement for Tom Daschle look like a genius at times in comparison.
Let's not oversell this win for Frist, who alone of the contenders actively politicked for votes from the delegates. Of the 526 votes he won, all but 97 of them came from Tennessee delegates. He had no other home-state competition. He remains terribly popular in his own back yard, but even in this preliminary wind-tester, he doesn't have much legs anywhere else.
If Frist's finish surprises, then Romney's stuns. No one expected Mitt Romney to show up in GOP calculations, at least not at the SRLC. George Allen, who finished four points behind and tied with the solidarity write-in vote for George Bush for third place, should have done better than Romney. After all, this is the Southern straw poll, and it was expected to raise the profile of candidates below the Mason-Dixon Line. Allen should have benefitted from that. He has served as both governor and senator, has great name recognition, and has been more stalwart in support of the Bush administration than Bill Frist.
The big loser, of course, is John McCain. After sticking his finger into the Nashville wind, McCain realized that he couldn't win earlier this week. Having been built up by the media as the presumptive nominee for the Republicans -- in much the same way Hillary has for the Democrats -- McCain knew that he could not afford to get beaten badly. As I wrote on Friday, he engineered the Bush write-in vote to appear selfless and a party stalwart while hoping to make the entire event irrelevant.
McCain only succeeded in making himself irrelevant. He could only convince ten percent of the 1427 delegates to write in Bush's name. McCain himself only got 66 votes out of 1427, a stunning rebuke for a man who has had his face on TV more than Madonna since the 2004 election. It demonstrates a gaping weakness in the South, perhaps a fatal weakness, if he expects to win the nomination. It also shows that his efforts to suck up to conservatives and Bush supporters has largely failed. And lastly, his humiliation in Nashville rebukes the media players who had built McCain into a Republican juggernaut.
What's next? This straw poll will launch Romney into the top tier of Republican candidates and start attracting the most effective organizers to his campaign. His record in Massachussetts will get more scrutiny, but he will also get more media exposure. Romney holds a governor's seat, a better launching pad for presidential campaigns than a Senate seat. George Allen, who has held both, will need to explain his weak showing in his own neighborhood if he wants to push for the nomination, but don't be surprised if people start thinking about a Romney-Allen ticket. It would link two sections of the country and create a team of likeable conservatives for the 2008 campaign.
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