By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
Mitt Romney's campaign figured out a way for supporters to help him do well in a closely watched straw poll of Christian conservative leaders without showing up at the event: Donate at least $1 to Family Research Council Action, then vote online.
But the campaigns of Republican rivals cried foul, grumbling that opening up the vote to anyone with an Internet connection and a spare dollar cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results, to be announced Saturday afternoon in Washington at the Values Voter Summit.
A top Romney supporter sent an email to backers Thursday, urging them to use the online option.
"Let me tell you how simple this is!" read the email from Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta public relations executive, prominent evangelical activist, and co-chairman of Romney's faith and values steering committee. "Just go to www.frcaction.org and click on the large banner 'Participate in the 2008 American Values Straw Poll.' "
DeMoss today defended the online campaign, but aides to rivals John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson said they were not asking their supporters to vote online. They also noted that, typically, straw polls measure the support of people in a place, in this case a summit of prominent conservative leaders.
"Our campaign is focused on winning votes and not buying straw polls," said one McCain aide.
DeMoss dismissed such criticism.
"Presumably people who would go that website and would send at least $1 to the Family Research Council are the same people who would attend this conference," DeMoss said in a telephone interview. He noted that online voting is a "mechanism that Family Research Action is allowing and permitting, so it's not as if the campaign circumvented this live convention."
Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, added, "Here is the secret to winning straw polls: Try and get as many votes as you can. Shhh. Don't tell anyone though."
This is not the first time Romney has been accused of stacking a straw poll.
In August, he trounced his rivals in a heated straw poll in Ames, Iowa. His vanquished rivals complained the vote was not a measure of true grassroots support because the former governor had rented a fleet of buses for his supporters, and paid dozens of volunteers $500 to $1,000 a month to build his campaign.
Romney's first-place finish, however, provided a key early boost to his campaign, and he still leads the polls in Iowa.