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Iowa Postmortem: Romney’s Dilemma, Santorum’s Opportunity

Mitt Romney’s eight-vote win in the Iowa caucuses had to leave him feeling a lot better than an equally narrow loss to surprising Rick Santorum would have felt. His first place finish will undoubtedly be followed next week by another victory in New Hampshire that will set him on what has to be considered a fairly secure path to the Republican nomination. But the shakeout from the end of a torturously long night in Iowa brought with it some bad news along with the good.

If, as he seemed to indicate in his concession speech, Rick Perry ends his presidential bid, then that will, along with the collapse of Michele Bachmann’s campaign, leave Santorum as the only one left standing of the trio who competed for the votes of social conservatives. Just as ominous for Romney was Newt Gingrich’s all but spoken vow in his speech to spend the rest of the primary season attempting to exact revenge on Mitt for the barrage of negative advertising that helped drop him to fourth. Though that still leaves Romney free of the nightmare scenario in which the relative moderate is left to face a single ascendant conservative, his path the nomination looks a bit less rosy today than it did just 24 hours ago.

Santorum’s impressive surge in the last two weeks in Iowa brought him a virtual tie with Romney, with each getting just under a quarter of the total vote. That alone was enough to give his campaign new life, although he lacks money and organization elsewhere. Though evangelicals and other social conservatives don’t play as large a role in determining the outcome as they do in Iowa, with Perry and Bachmann effectively out of the picture, there’s no question Santorum must now be taken a lot more seriously.

There is not enough time left for Santorum to mount a serious challenge in New Hampshire, but with Perry out of the picture and Bachmann also fading, his prospects for a good showing in South Carolina just got a lot better. With the money he will raise off of his Iowa upset and the harvest of defectors from other conservatives that he will undoubtedly reap, the former Pennsylvania senator will have every chance to stay in the race and give Romney a tough fight all the way through the spring. At some point in the not-too-distant future, he will have to actually beat Romney somewhere to be considered a genuine threat. But though he must still be considered a long shot, a scenario in which Santorum becomes the GOP nominee is no longer unimaginable.

Newt Gingrich’s dismal fourth-place finish in Iowa after leading being in the lead only a few short weeks ago effectively killed his hopes to be the nominee last night. His inconsistent record and volatile personality eventually caught up with him. But he may still play an important role in deciding the race. Gingrich’s bitter concession speech was notable for both his praise of Santorum and an implicit vow to exact revenge on Romney for the blizzard of negative ads that helped sink him in Iowa. It’s not clear that Gingrich’s attacks can do all that much damage. For a man who has spent so much of his career spewing vitriol at his opponents, Gingrich’s whining was the height of hypocrisy. Yet if he concentrates his fire on Romney for the remainder of his time in the race, it could help keep the frontrunner on the defensive when he could otherwise be consolidating his lead.

Even scarier for Romney is a scenario in which Gingrich pulls out altogether at some point before Super Tuesday, leaving Santorum as the only viable “non-Romney” conservative still running. Given Gingrich’s ambition and obvious desire to remain a fixture at the upcoming televised debates that seems unlikely. But if it happens, it will put a spotlight on the one real negative for Romney coming out of Iowa: his demonstrated lack of appeal for conservatives. If by the end of February, Romney is left facing only a strengthened Santorum with extremist Ron Paul hovering on the margins, then talk of his inevitability will cease.



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