George Bush prevailed over the Republican presidential field in a statewide straw poll here Saturday, but former preacher Pat Robertson again showed his grass-roots organizing prowess by placing a strong second to the vice president.
The closely watched GOP state convention poll gave Bush 57.2%, or 1,322 of the 2,313 votes cast. Robertson won 849 votes--36.7% of the total.
The vote gave the two men the latest bragging rights of the unofficial straw-poll season. Florida's 62 national convention votes will be the second-largest bloc decided on Super Tuesday, next March 8, when 20 states hold primaries.
The other GOP contenders declined to mount a serious bid for poll votes, charging that the delegate-selection process for the state convention had been weighted in favor of Bush.
About 40% of the delegates were hand-picked from the ranks of party organizers, elected officials and GOP donors, who tend to favor Bush. In fact, about half of the vice president's delegates came from that pool.
The remaining 60% were chosen by lot from Republicans who attended county caucuses last August. Robertson gathered a plurality of that vote.
The two-tier system for selecting delegates allowed both campaigns to declare victory, Bush for winning the outright majority and Robertson for winning a majority of the caucus delegates' votes.
"In anybody's ballgame in this business, 57% is a win," said Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater.
Robertson's campaign manager, R. Marc Nuttle, said the second-place finish meant that Robertson and Bush were now engaged in a "two-man race" in Florida.
"We're just absolutely delighted at the results and ecstatic at what we got," Nuttle said.
The "Presidency II" straw poll drew considerable attention because its precursor, 1979's "Presidency I," was credited with killing the chances of candidate John B. Connally and boosting the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
This year, with a more pronounced two-tier delegate process in place, Bush's competitors acknowledged before the poll that the vice president would win a majority--and the battle turned to a debate over expectations.
Robertson's staff pronounced that Bush should win at least 70% of the vote, while Bush's campaign said that a Robertson vote of more than 40% would constitute an accomplishment.
In a battle that pitted Bush's stranglehold on party regulars against Robertson's ability to flood caucuses with his enthusiastic followers, neither accomplished what the other demanded, but each claimed to beat his own expectations.
The contest was the latest in a series of battles between Bush and Robertson forces in straw polls and delegate selections across the country, and for Bush it evened an embarrassing score. In September, Robertson carried a straw poll in Ames, Iowa, while Bush placed a disappointing third.
After the Florida poll, however, Bush went out of his way to throw bouquets at Robertson.
"I want to congratulate Pat Robertson on a fine effort," Bush said in a statement read by campaign communications director Pete Teeley. "He has displayed again that he has a strong national organization and is willing to compete in every region."
Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, running second behind Bush in most national polls, ordered his name taken from the vote tally--his 39 votes were formally listed under the term "other"--and declared in a Friday convention visit that the straw poll was a "non-event."
New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV skipped the poll, and ended up with 64 and 10 votes, respectively.
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. objected to the delegate-selection process but showed up to woo delegates anyway, saying he "didn't want to wimp out." He received 25 votes.
In his speech before the delegates, Haig drew mumbles of curiosity when he launched into an expansive commentary predicting the eventual entry of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo into the Democratic race.
"If Jesse Jackson is the plurality candidate of the Democratic Party (after primaries in February and March), it won't be hard for your Democratic colleagues here in the South to rally enthusiastically behind that city slicker from New York," he said.
Robertson, in a speech greeted by wild applause, called for party unity and made particular note of the religious activists he has brought to the campaign.
"There's room in the Republican Party for minorities, for blacks, for Hispanics, for women, for young people, for older people, for evangelists, for labor union people," he said. "Our job is to beat the Democrats, and let's do it together."
Bush, in his speech, emphasized his experience as Ronald Reagan's vice president.
"I know what crosses his desk," he said. "The presidency isn't like anything else. I was in Congress. It's nothing like being a member of the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House."
Staff writer Frank Clifford contributed to this story.