THE Iowa Republican straw poll last weekend played out as one more piece in the complex nomination process leading to the presentation, in November, 2008, of a choice for voters between presidential candidates of the two major parties.
For the rest of the country, there was a bit of wonder about the meaning and value of the straw poll, conducted in Ames. For a $35 donation to the state GOP, Iowa residents could descend on Iowa State University's basketball arena, listen to speeches by some of the party's presidential candidates, then cast a ballot for their favorite.
The only major candidate running was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In national polls, he is generally shown running behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, undeclared candidate and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
But in Iowa, Mr. Romney finished first, with 32 percent of 14,302 votes cast. He has spent a substantial amount of money in the state and he fortified his campaign with the help of 96 members of his extended family. In second place with 18 percent was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, followed by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback with 15 percent. Iowa will hold its caucuses in December or January.
Perhaps most important of the straw poll's results was that former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who finished sixth with just 7 percent of the vote, announced his withdrawal from the Republican campaign. He gauged, probably correctly, that his prospects of raising enough money to continue had been severely damaged by his weak showing in a neighboring state.
No offense to Mr. Thompson, but his elimination from the race is a welcome development. We can only wish for more.
Both the Republicans and the Democrats need to reduce the number of candidates still in the contest if voters are to begin focusing on the real contenders. Straw polls, caucuses, and primaries at least measure support by votes as opposed to comparative stacks of campaign finance money, which is a different barometer for candidate strength.
Even as a nonbinding exercise, the Iowa straw poll shaped the early race, showing that America's lively and longer-than-ever system of choosing a president is working.