DES MOINES, Iowa—The caucuses here may have reshuffled the cast, but they didn’t change the script that has guided the tumultuous GOP presidential contest over the past year. As before, two basic truths shape the Republican race: First, Mitt Romney is performing solidly but not spectacularly as the front-runner. And second, the conservatives in the overlapping tea party and evangelical Christian circles, who are most skeptical of him, still have not consolidated around an alternative who might derail him. “The big picture has yet to be altered, which is that Romney is a weak front-runner and everybody else is trying to become the alternative,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises a super PAC supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Iowa deepened each of those dynamics. Romney’s victory was nothing more than workmanlike: He won more or less by standing still. Against a much less formidable field than 2008, Romney this time captured almost exactly the same 25 percent share of the vote as he did while losing the state to Mike Huckabee four years ago. (He won nearly the same number of total votes as in 2008, too.) That modest performance is encouraging hope among Romney’s critics that his support tops out at about one-fourth to one-third of the GOP electorate. “The Romney ceiling has got to be the big story out of Iowa,” insisted conservative activist Erick Erickson, publisher of RedState.
But Iowa also underscored the huge hurdles facing Romney’s opponents. The challenges include his big lead in New Hampshire and a financial advantage so commanding that on Wednesday, Romney’s campaign became the first to air television ads in Florida, a potentially decisive contest (still four weeks away) where advertising often rules.
As Romney’s team hoped, the Iowa result hobbled the two candidates it feared the most—Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry—while elevating the two rivals it believes are least capable of waging a true national challenge: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Paul, with his purist libertarian message, has an ardent but limited following. And although Santorum appealed to the conservatives who are most dubious of Romney (particularly evangelical Christians), the former senator didn’t unify those voters nearly as much as Huckabee did. (He got 32 percent of their votes, compared with Huckabee’s 46 percent four years ago.) In the contests ahead, the underfunded and lightly staffed Santorum also won’t be able to replicate his Iowa strategy of virtually taking up residence in the state for a year. “He will get a hell of a bump” from his Iowa finish, said top GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who is neutral in the race, “but he has so much to do so fast.”
If Iowa gave Romney any real headaches, it’s because the state may have over-performed its historic job of winnowing the presidential field. The caucus results prompted Michele Bachmann to quit the race on Wednesday morning, less than 12 hours after Romney was declared the narrow winner. And although Perry has apparently reversed his initial inclination to examine withdrawing, the fact that he considered it underscores how much his fifth-place finish damaged his viability. Those developments should increase Santorum’s prospects, starting in South Carolina on January 21, of unifying evangelical Christian voters who resisted Romney last time and showed no sign of warming to him in Iowa. “Romney’s fear
is that this consolidates,” Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s campaign manager, said before she withdrew.
Evangelical voters alone would not be enough to make Santorum a genuine threat to Romney. But if Santorum, with his regular-guy persona and lunch-bucket message of restoring American manufacturing, can also make significant inroads with the growing number of blue-collar Republicans, he may be able to cause the polished and affluent Romney some anxious moments—even if the odds are now strongly in the latter’s favor. “Usually, you win hearts and the head follows,” said longtime New Hampshire GOP activist Tom Rath, who is supporting Romney. “This may be a time when we win heads and the hearts will follow. Diana Ross was right: ‘You can’t hurry love.’ ”
HOW IT HAPPENED
The historically narrow Iowa result marked another twist in what has been the most mercurial Republican nomination fight since 1940.
The race started as slowly as did the agonizing trickle of results on Tuesday night, and with a lot less suspense. Potentially formidable candidates such as Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Huckabee, and Chris Christie all passed. In contrast to four years ago, when the contenders launched robust ground operations and media blitzes nearly a year before the caucuses, this Iowa contest didn’t congeal until the fall—and even then it didn’t generate anything approaching the organizational, financial, or time commitments of previous races.
The contenders took turns surging to the top of the polls, only to crash and burn shortly thereafter. Iowa seemed less a separate theater than simply the stage on which the national drama played out. Bachmann’s straw-poll win last summer was immediately eclipsed by Perry’s entry into the race; Perry stumbled badly in nationally televised debates; Herman Cain sunk amid allegations of sexual misconduct; and Gingrich was buried in attack ads launched by a pro-Romney super PAC.