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Posted at 3:20 PM ET, 01/22/2011

Mitt Romney tops New Hampshire presidential straw poll; tea-party favorite Jack Kimball elected state GOP chair

By Felicia Sonmez

Updated: 3:45 p.m.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) took the top spot in a presidential straw poll of the 493 members of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee today while tea-party-backed businessman Jack Kimball bested an establishment candidate to become the state party's new chair.

The results were somewhat at odds with each other: Kimball's victory is a boon for New Hampshire's tea-party activists, who have become a rising force within the state party, while Romney's win is a sign that on the presidential level, key party insiders are backing a more establishment candidate a year out from the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary.

Thirty-five percent of the 273 members voting in the straw poll backed Romney, who came in second in the state's 2008 Republican primary and earlier this month held a wide lead in a poll of New Hampshire Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.

Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul came in second in the straw poll with 11 percent, followed by former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R) with eight percent, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) with seven percent and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) with five percent.

(Worth noting: While fewer than 300 state committee members voted in the presidential straw poll, 421 members cast ballots in the race for state party chairman -- a reminder that it's wise not to read to much into the straw poll results.)

The straw poll, which was conducted by ABC News and Manchester-based WMUR-TV at the state party's annual gathering in Derry, asked state committee members to choose from 20 potential White House contenders, including those such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) who have ruled out of the running. Write-in candidates were also permitted.

In the race for state party chairman, members voted 222-to-199 to elect Kimball, who also chairs the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, over Cheshire County Republican Party Chair Juliana Bergeron.

Kimball's win came after he and several other tea-party-backed candidates had come up short in recent races: last year, Kimball placed second in the GOP's gubernatorial primary and another tea-party favorite, Ovide Lamontagne, came up short in his bid for the GOP Senate nod.

Amid signs that Kimball was gaining traction, former governor John H. Sununu, the outgoing state party chairman, broke with tradition earlier this month and endorsed Bergeron in the race. Most other influential Republicans had also backed Bergeron, although Kimball had won the support of former Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R).

The New Hampshire presidential primary is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14, 2012 and is open to registered Republicans and independent voters. While straw polls such as today's set expectations and indicate early support, they're typically worth taking with a large grain of salt, as they sample a small cross-section of the New Hampshire primary electorate.

On top of that, none of the major candidates has formally announced his or her bid, let alone begun campaigning. Polls taken a year out from New Hampshire's 2008 presidential primary showing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) with commanding leads weren't predictive of who would win on primary day.

Romney will travel to New Hampshire in early March, his first visit to the Granite State since the November midterms. Pawlenty will be visiting the state on Monday and Tuesday to promote his new book.

The list of Republicans on the presidential straw poll ballot included Romney, Bachmann, Paul, Palin, Pawlenty, Christie, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, conservative commentator Herman Cain, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Sen. John Thune (S.C.) and Donald Trump.

By Felicia Sonmez  | January 22, 2011; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012, Republican Party, White House  
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