Mitt Romney won the Ames straw poll tonight because of a combination of plod and money.

Romney was exultant in a brief speech to supporters, and campaign aides, attempting to keep expectations in check with the results, said the margin of victory represented a major validation of Romney’s extensive and expensive efforts in the first caucus state.

Since three major rivals skipped the event, since Romney had visited the state 17 times, since he spent so heavily to transport supporters to Ames today and because he ran Ames-related several statewide television advertisements, his victory was all but certain.

The temperature was on Romney’s mind as he addressed reporters. “It feels great to win. It’s a warm one. But if you thought it was hot, it felt cool to me to win.” Romney said the victory shows he can win “purple states” like Iowa. He acknowledged that turnout was low and said his campaign had anticipated a slightly larger number of votes.

Asked about McCain and Giuliani’s performances, Romney couldn’t resist a taunt. “It’s too bad the other guys weren’t competing here… but they ‘d have played if they thought they could have won,” he said.

Michael DuHaime, Rudy Giuliani’s campaign manager, released a statement that did not mention Romney. “After tonight’s straw poll, Rudy Giuliani continues to be the candidate well-positioned to win the Republican nomination and the only candidate in the race who can beat the Democrats in 2008.”

Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chairman who ran George W. Bush’s Iowa effort in 1999 and who is neutral in the presidential race, said Romney’s victory was impressive.

“I think that the results show that he made a serious commitment and that it paid off,” Mehlman said.

Romney's straw poll operation had an Election Day feel to it. The campaign set up a boiler room in Ames to monitor straw poll "turnout." Volunteers telephone recalcitrant supporters who had pledged to attend the straw poll but failed to get on their assigned bus. Campaign aides called the straw poll a rehearsal for the Iowa caucuses in January. Other advisers said that Romney would use the momentum from his win to consolidate the center-right foot-soldiers in the Republican base.

The second flight out of Ames belongs to Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who manifestly did not spend nearly as much as third-place finisher Sam Brownback and who has been dogged by questions about his ability to harness his support.

“We had two fish and five loaves and it fed 5,000,” Huckabee said of his victory.

Whether Huckabee leverages his finish to raise money and enhance his profile remains to be seen. Huckabee has been allergic to high dollar fundraising and has virtually no presence on the Internet.

Michael Farris, a Huckabee adviser who runs the Home School Legal Defense Fund, said Huckabee’s campaign has existed on a “shoe-string budget” so far. “But it just goes to show that he is the best communicator in this race.”

Sen. Brownback spent about $325,000, his campaign said.

Several of the lesser-known candidates staked their viability on strong Ames showings, including ex Wi-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who said he would drop out if he did not place second.

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