Republican hopeful Mitt Romney cruised to an expected win in the first key test of next year's White House race, in a party popularity poll in Iowa devalued by the absence of his top rivals.
The former Massachusetts governor captured 31.5 percent of the vote in the non-binding party straw poll in the midwestern state, which holds the first nominating contest for Democratic and Republican candidates next year.
"Today, the people of Iowa took the first step towards bringing change to Washington," Romney said.
"This important victory sends a signal to grassroots Republican activists across the country that we are working hard to earn their support, and that we are ready to begin the work of strengthening our economy, our military and our families."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee put in a strong showing, coming in second with 18.1 percent, with Senator Sam Brownback, who has courted the Republican Party's conservative Christian base on 15.3 percent.
The Iowa straw poll is a traditional curtain raiser to the presidential election season, but was hit this year by the absence of several top contenders.
Rudolph Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York, 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 Iowa caucuses.
Former screen star and senator Fred Thompson was also missing, as he has not yet officially launched his campaign, though is expected to jump into the race in September.
Giuliani leads most Republican national polls, ahead of Fred Thompson, with Romney trailing. But Romney tops opinion polls in Iowa, and another early voting state New Hampshire after pouring millions of dollars into his campaign.
Rock bottom showings by several other candidates in Iowa looked set to winnow down the Republican field.
Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson said he would end his campaign if he failed to come in the first two spots in the straw poll: in the event he trailed in sixth with just seven percent of the vote.
Another Republican long-shot congressman Duncan Hunter was ninth with just one percent.
Counting of the 14,000 votes by activists by state Republican Party officials was slowed by a voting machine glitch, and came after a day of political pageantry, barbecues, political speech making and music concerts in this university town.
Earlier, thousands of Republican Party faithful flocked to the indoor sports arena hosting speeches from top candidates.