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Santorum Impressive in Iowa, But Romney Still in Catbird Seat

In assessing what happened last night in Iowa, I agree with the conventional wisdom in several respects.

The first is that what Rick Santorum achieved in the Iowa caucuses was remarkable. It was a testament to his skills as a candidate and his virtues (including fortitude) as a man. Santorum was methodical, patient, and committed to his cause. He has proven to be a formidable debater. And in the last few weeks in particular, Santorum came across as less intense, less abrasive, and more likeable. His speech last night was at times touching and uplifting, as well as politically smart.

Senator Santorum is a man of deep and impressive convictions. He’s the only candidate who speaks about the importance of the family and our social institutions, including their influence on economics (broken families are much more likely to be in poverty than intact families). And his appeal to blue collar voters explains why he’s won impressive races in a state that is not always well disposed toward conservatives.

Santorum has vulnerabilities, and you can be sure they’ll be exploited in the next few weeks. The question is whether he can take advantage of this moment in a way that none of the other “non-Romney candidates” (Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich) have so far. Santorum is a far more serious and impressive politician than Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. And he has far less “baggage” than Gingrich. He is, then, arguably the most plausible conservative alternative to Romney who has yet emerged. Still, having now risen to near the top, can Santorum stay there? We’re about to find out.

I also agree with many pundits that Newt Gingrich’s speech last night brought back ghosts of Gingrich past. The former Speaker began the day accusing Romney of being a liar and ended it with a graceless and bitter speech. He showed the chronic indiscipline which concerns many conservatives. The “new” Newt gave way to the old one, and right now the main task Gingrich faces is to regain his emotional equilibrium.

But there are several storylines emerging from which I dissent:

1. The fact that Mitt Romney won the Iowa race by eight votes rather than lost it by eight votes doesn’t matter. Yes it does. Governor Romney won a state that he lost four years ago and he was expected to lose, at least until a few weeks ago, this year. Iowa is not favorable terrain for Romney – and while he won the same percentage of the vote in 2012 as he did in 2008 (25 percent), he won. And winning is always better, much better, than losing. The story from Iowa that captured the political imagination of much of the country was the rise of Rick Santorum. But as we move further away from Iowa, the salient political fact will be that Romney carried the state, even if it was only by eight votes.

2. Yesterday’s results demonstrated that Mitt Romney is a weak frontrunner. I’ll stick with my earlier prediction, which is that Governor Romney is in the catbird seat. I wrote that if Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has a significant lead right now, it’s hard to see how he would lose the nomination, particularly given his enormous advantages in money and organization.

Remember, no GOP presidential candidate since 1980 has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary (Gerald Ford won both in 1976, but he was an incumbent president). Bear in mind, too, that the post-South Carolina calendar should favor Romney — and the likelihood is that Romney will enter the South Carolina election (January 21) having won two elections versus none for any of the other candidates. After South Carolina comes Florida (January 31), which is an expensive state to run in. And Romney has the money necessary to wage an air campaign. There’s no question Rick Santorum will raise money based on his impressive second-place finish in Iowa, but he’s still not on the same playing field as Romney when it comes to either money or organization. And Iowa, which one would assume would be (for ideological reasons) Santorum’s best state, is now in the rear-view mirror. New Hampshire, of course, is not nearly as conservative as Iowa (in 2008 New Hampshireites who considered themselves “somewhat conservative” outnumbered those who considered themselves “very conservative” by nearly 2-to-1). But few people realize South Carolina is also less conservative than Iowa. (As Henry Olsen points out in this National Affairs essay, even in supposedly ultra-conservative South Carolina, voters who consider themselves “somewhat conservative” and “very conservative” tied with 34 percent of the GOP electorate in 2008, with moderates and liberals nearly even at 32 percent.)

3. By the end of January the race will be more muddled than ever. Perhaps. But arguably, if Romney wins two of the four contests in January, and certainly if he wins three of four, then short of an epic collapse, the former Massachusetts governor is on his way to securing the GOP nomination. If Romney is going to be stopped, then January is the month in which it almost has to happen. Thanks to yesterday, the GOP frontrunner began the year in very good shape. And a week from now, post-New Hampshire, he might be in still better shape.

Rick Santorum accomplished an amazing feat in Iowa. But if he hopes to derail the Romney campaign, what happened yesterday needs to be only his opening act.

 


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