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Frist thrives with home-field advantage

Senate majority leader wins straw poll, but downplays significance

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Sen. Bill Frist won a GOP straw poll in Tennessee after packing a conference with supporters.

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MEMPHIS, Tennessee (CNN) -- Home-state favorite Bill Frist won the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll Saturday night, besting a slate of other potential 2008 GOP presidential candidates in this unscientific survey of Southern and Midwestern Republicans.

With 1,427 ballots cast, the Senate majority leader from Nashville received 526 votes, or 36.9 percent -- and all but 97 of them were cast by Tennessee delegates. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made a surprising second-place finish with 205 votes, or 14.4 percent.

Frist overcame an 11th-hour attempt by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other GOP leaders who urged voters to write in President Bush as their choice in a symbolic sign of support for the embattled leader. Bush tied for third place with Sen. George Allen of Virginia. Each received 147 votes, or 10 percent.

McCain, whose write-in effort was largely viewed by attendees as an attempt to derail a Frist victory, placed fourth with 66 votes. McCain's political advisers denied that that was his goal, and said it was appropriate to stand by Bush as the United States fights the war on terror.

"We are gratified," Eric Ueland, Frist's chief of staff, told CNN. "We did a lot of hard work. We are focused on 2006 and the party's focus for a strong positive vision for 2008."

A Frist loss essentially would have derailed his presidential ambitions, a Frist confidante told CNN before the poll results were announced.

Other possible candidates and their vote totals: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 54; New York Gov. George Pataki, 38; Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, 22; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 15; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 13; and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, 3.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was not on the ballot, received 32 votes, and 43 delegates voted for the category "other."

About 2,000 Republicans are attending the four-day conference that ends Sunday.

The straw poll was sponsored by the National Journal's Hotline and the Tennessee Republican Party.

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