With his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday, Rick Santorum was thrust into serious contention for the Republican nomination after spending much of the last year as an afterthought in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. In a virtual dead heat with longtime Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, Santorum was one of the evening’s clear winners. Michele Bachman, after pinning her entire strategy on Iowa, finished last among the candidates competing there, and may be the night’s biggest loser. But the candidates themselves are hardly the only story line out of Iowa. Here are some of the other winners and losers from the first skirmish of the 2012 election.
Attack ads: They worked. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surged in national and Iowa polling in early December, Mitt Romney’s allies began airing withering TV ads that accused Gingrich of everything from teaming with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on global warming to backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. Gingrich’s numbers sank. “I probably should have responded faster and more aggressive than that,” he later acknowledged. By Caucus Day, he was calling the former Massachusetts governor a “liar,” but it was too late.
Super PACs: Most of those attack ads weren’t even aired by the candidates but by a new kind of political entity – the super PAC. These groups can accept unlimited donations, so long as they don’t coordinate directly with candidates and their campaigns. But many of the outside groups are run by former members of the candidates’ inner circles, blurring the line between the two. With access to deep checkbooks, and with the ability to air nasty ads without muddying the candidates themselves, super PACs are expected to be a fixture of the 2012 campaign.
Retail politics: Reports of its death were a bit premature, apparently. Two of the top three finishers in Iowa, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, ran the most aggressive ground games in the state. And although Romney ignored the state for months, even he campaigned aggressively there in the race’s final month. In a contest that seemed at times dominated by cable news and national trends, it turns out that old-fashioned politicking still had a role to play.
Debates: They mattered from the outset. The 13 face-offs set the tone and agenda for the contest. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s inability back in June to make his criticism of “Romneycare” stick set in motion his early withdrawal. Texas Gov. Rick Perry never really overcome his “oops” moment during another debate, when he forget the name of a federal agency he wants to eliminate. And Gingrich soared to the top of the field last month on the strength of debate performances in which he refused to fire at his rivals. Romney, meanwhile, plodded along mostly unscathed as his opponents repeatedly took aim at one another in an effort to become his rival-in-chief. With a muddled three-way result Tuesday, and four more debates to come in the next few weeks, they are likely to retain their influence in the race.
Tim Tebow: The born-again Christian and NFL quarterback has wowed football fans with his late-game heroics this season. So Republicans tried to hitch their fortunes to Tebow’s rising star. Perry declared at a candidates’ debate, “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.” Then a super PAC backing Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota produced an ad likening her to the quarterback. “No baggage, Christian, and, like Tebow, she keeps fighting and she just keeps winning votes,” the ad said. Unfortunately, unlike Tebow, she was trounced on caucus game day.
The sweater vest: Rick Santorum’s late surge brought added scrutiny to his sartorial preferences. “Fear the vest,” Santorum told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham this week. Sleeveless and V-neck, Santorum rocked the sweater vest as he traipsed across Iowa’s 99 counties. The ensemble has inspired a Twitter and Facebook page.
Evangelical voters: Four years ago, self-described born again and evangelical Christians made up about 60 percent of Iowa caucus-goers and delivered former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a big early victory. About 46 percent of those voters went for Huckabee, according to the CNN entrance poll. Evangelicals still turned out in 2012, but they splintered their support across the field, giving Paul 19 percent, Gingrich 14 percent, Romney 14 percent and Perry 13 percent, the CNN entrance poll showed. Their top preference, Santorum, received only 32 percent support. The lack of unity denied Santorum a clear-cut victory over Romney.
Mitt Romney’s ceiling: Four years ago, Romney lost the Iowa caucuses with 25 percent of the vote, a blow his campaign never fully recovered from. Tonight, he again stalled out around 25 percent -- but now he marches on to New Hampshire as a co-victor with Rick Santorum. Still, his inability to attract a larger share of the Republican electorate raises nagging questions about why a year-long GOP front-runner can’t garner more than one-quarter of the GOP vote.
Transparency: Many of the ads airing in Iowa have missed a fixture of recent campaigns: A candidate looking into the camera and saying, “I approve this message.” That’s because a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision paved the way for unlimited money to find its way to outside political groups, known as super PACs. More than $13 million of such political money has been spent and much of it remains undisclosed. The super PACs have further exploited the new the rules by delaying their disclosure of donors until the end of January – after the key first wave of caucuses and primaries.
Mike Huckabee: It would have been too easy for the ex-Arkansas governor. He won 34 percent of the vote in Iowa four years ago, whereas tonight’s contest produced a two-way tie between Romney and Santorum. Maybe capturing the nomination would have still been a bridge too far – his campaign faltered after leaving the Hawkeye State last time, after all. But tonight is a reminder of Huckabee’s lost opportunity to be a force in the 2012 Republican race.
Ames straw poll: Will this event matter four years from now? Maybe. But it certainly shouldn’t based on Tuesday’s results. Straw-poll winner Michele Bachmann finished a dismal last among the candidates taking part in the caucuses, another body blow to the belief that performing well in the August event is a harbinger of good fortunes on Caucus Night. After all, Romney won the straw poll four years earlier only to lose big on caucus night. Already derided as a glorified fundraiser for the Iowa GOP, expect candidates in four years to think twice before spending heavily to participate.