Hard-charging Mitt Romney yesterday was tipped to cruise to a crushing victory as Republican activists cast the first votes in the race for president next year in an Iowa popularity contest.
The fabled straw poll in the university town of Ames is a traditional early indicator of the Republican field, but is devalued this year by the absence of the former Massachusetts governor's top rivals.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator John McCain balked at shelling out several millions of dollars needed to bus in thousands of supporters to the straw poll, with tickets going for US$35 a head.
They also judged there was little to be gained by risking a poor showing in the event, five months before the curtain-raising Iowa caucuses when voters go to the polls for real to select Republican and Democratic nominees.
Former screen star and senator Fred Thompson would also be missing, as he has not yet officially launched his campaign but is expected to jump into the race next month.
This year's straw poll would perhaps be most remembered for thinning out the Republican field.
A poor showing would push rank outsiders in the Republican pack, like former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and congressman Duncan Hunter, to the brink of elimination, with little prospect of raising more campaign funds.
For middle-tier conservative hopefuls like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Sam Brownback, the event could offer a "bounce" or dent their hopes.
Romney and other candidates are renting hundreds of buses to ship supporters here.
"It's expensive," Senator Brownback said earlier this week during a stop in suburban Des Moines. "We hope to bring in several thousand people."
Some pundits think the anti-Iraq war longshot candidate Ron Paul, a favorite of Internet grassroots activists, might make a stir.
Romney, a suave multimillionaire former venture capitalist, has poured millions of dollars into his Iowa operation, hoping to build momentum in January's caucuses and seize control of the Republican race.
In the latest University of Iowa poll, he enjoyed a huge lead in the state, with 27 percent of likely caucus goers, compared with 11 percent for Giuliani and 7 percent for Fred Thompson.
He had criticized his rivals for avoiding the straw poll and hoped to bank a store of goodwill for the Iowa caucuses early next year.
"It's a great way to measure who are the folks that have the character and vision and the organization and the fundraising capacity, all the elements it takes to win the presidency," Romney said, talking about the straw poll in a video on his Web site on Friday.
He said the first two or three placeholders in the event would separate themselves from the field.
"You know these are the guys who are ready for prime time," he said.
Some estimates say 40,000 people would show up to the poll and enjoy music, food and candidate speeches before results were unveiled in a sports stadium in the early evening.