Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iowa caucus

Can GOP Candidates Ignore Iowa?

With two years to go until the political world converges on Ames, Iowa for the traditional Straw Poll conducted a few months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, Republicans are pondering whether anyone who is serious about winning the presidency should bother showing up. But the meaningless nature of the quadrennial circus in Ames (the fact that Michele Bachmann won the caucus in 2011 shows how absurd the poll can be) is only part of the problem about Iowa. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes today, the dominance of the state by the far right and libertarian wings of the GOP is causing a great many in the party to wonder not only whether the disproportionate effort that the state attracts from presidential candidates is worth it but whether contenders with mainstream appeal should even compete there.

Those asking these questions are not wrong. Iowa is an odd choice to be a presidential lab test. It is not only unrepresentative of the nation as a whole but also even of a Republican Party that is whiter and less urban than the rest of the country. Moreover, the dominance of libertarian backers of the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian faction and social conservatives in the state party makes it inhospitable for candidates that are likely to win primaries elsewhere in the country, not to mention have a shot at actually winning the presidency in a general election. But it’s going to take more courage than most political consultants are usually able to muster to get any of them to advise serious candidates to shun Iowa in 2016. As much as 2012 was an illustration of Iowa’s irrelevance to the final results that year, ignoring the locus of political attention for months at the beginning of the primary season could be a serious mistake that could wind up damaging a more mainstream GOP candidate like Chris Christie and giving more conservative rivals an even bigger boost than they might otherwise receive.

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With two years to go until the political world converges on Ames, Iowa for the traditional Straw Poll conducted a few months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, Republicans are pondering whether anyone who is serious about winning the presidency should bother showing up. But the meaningless nature of the quadrennial circus in Ames (the fact that Michele Bachmann won the caucus in 2011 shows how absurd the poll can be) is only part of the problem about Iowa. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes today, the dominance of the state by the far right and libertarian wings of the GOP is causing a great many in the party to wonder not only whether the disproportionate effort that the state attracts from presidential candidates is worth it but whether contenders with mainstream appeal should even compete there.

Those asking these questions are not wrong. Iowa is an odd choice to be a presidential lab test. It is not only unrepresentative of the nation as a whole but also even of a Republican Party that is whiter and less urban than the rest of the country. Moreover, the dominance of libertarian backers of the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian faction and social conservatives in the state party makes it inhospitable for candidates that are likely to win primaries elsewhere in the country, not to mention have a shot at actually winning the presidency in a general election. But it’s going to take more courage than most political consultants are usually able to muster to get any of them to advise serious candidates to shun Iowa in 2016. As much as 2012 was an illustration of Iowa’s irrelevance to the final results that year, ignoring the locus of political attention for months at the beginning of the primary season could be a serious mistake that could wind up damaging a more mainstream GOP candidate like Chris Christie and giving more conservative rivals an even bigger boost than they might otherwise receive.

On the face of it, it’s going to be tempting for Christie or someone like him in the 2016 race to ignore Iowa. The Ames Straw Poll is a pointless exercise that a more sensible party would scrap because it is more of a financial transaction (whoever buses in the most people and purchases tickets for them wins) than a genuine measure of political support. But that won’t happen because Iowa Republicans use it as a fundraiser. However, the caucus is also problematic because it is the creature of one wing of the party where those who cannot compete for the most right-wing voters seemingly haven’t much of a chance. What then is the point of a candidate with national appeal but not a favorite of Iowa conservatives expending precious time and money on a state they can’t win?

That’s what Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign thought when he didn’t bother trying in Iowa in 2008. His pro-choice views on abortion rendered him a certain loser in Iowa (as well as with the GOP nationwide) and he hadn’t a prayer of winning the caucus. But his absence from the competition left him dead in the water heading into the other primaries where his ultimately doomed candidacy might have fared better.

If Christie were looking for a better model than Giuliani, it would be Mitt Romney’s decision to try to win Iowa in 2008 even though he appeared out of step with the state’s Republicans. A divided field helped Romney with too many conservatives competing for the same votes. Moreover, had we known on the evening of the caucus that Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes—the ultimate result after all the ballots were counted—rather than thinking Romney had emerged as a narrow victor, that would have made things a bit more uncomfortable for the eventual nominee. But by showing up and competing, Romney demonstrated he intended to be the candidate of the whole party and not just those elements that were more likely to support him.

That’s a lesson Christie and any other Republican who thinks the odds are stacked against him in Iowa should ponder.

Like New Hampshire but only more so, Iowans are under the impression that they are entitled to meet presidential candidates personally and think any contender that doesn’t give them several opportunities to do so isn’t really trying. Conferring such a privilege on Iowans that is not given to the rest of the nation doesn’t make much sense. But since both Iowa and New Hampshire are more or less guaranteed their spots on the calendar, it’s not going to change. No matter how right-wing the Iowa GOP is, it’s like a Monday Night Football game: when nobody else is playing, everybody is forced to watch.

As in 2012, the Republican field will likely be crowded with plenty of competition for social conservative votes as well as the possibility that libertarians will be asked to choose between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. That leaves plenty of room for a Chris Christie (whose credentials on abortion and other social issues make him far more palatable to most Republicans than Giuliani or someone like him) to go to Iowa and, like Romney, do well enough to avoid embarrassment before moving on to other states where right-wingers won’t be as dominant.

Iowa won’t determine the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 any more than it has done any other year (and if you don’t believe me, just ask Presidents Santorum or Huckabee about it). But whether the national party, the candidates, or the media like it or not, it will be the center ring of the political circus for a few months at the end of 2015. Any candidate who ignores it will be making a mistake.

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Don’t Forget About Scott Walker

In the six months since Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the pundits have largely ignored one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. The people considered to be the obvious leading candidates have dominated the conversation about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. All of them have potentially large constituencies within the party and would be formidable contenders. Nor should the potential of Ted Cruz be dismissed. There is also a case to be made that 2012 holdover Rick Santorum is being underestimated just as he was last time. But why have we forgotten about Scott Walker?

The Wisconsin governor’s appearance at an important Republican fundraiser in Iowa last night got him back on the radar of pundits, and rightly so. It’s not just because Walker teased Republicans with his repeated mentions of being raised in the first caucus state and his close ties to it, though that sort of rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a prelude to a presidential campaign pitch. The point about Walker dipping his toe into the Hawkeye State’s early politicking that potential presidential rivals are also engaging in is that he is not just another Republican governor. Though he got lost in the focus on Romney’s defeat and the dramatic rivalry in the Senate that is emerging between Rubio, Paul and Cruz on national issues like immigration, Walker still has a cult following among conservatives that stands him in good stead as GOP senators duke it out on divisive issues and Christie concentrates on winning re-election in a manner that continues to alienate the Republican grass roots.

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In the six months since Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the pundits have largely ignored one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. The people considered to be the obvious leading candidates have dominated the conversation about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. All of them have potentially large constituencies within the party and would be formidable contenders. Nor should the potential of Ted Cruz be dismissed. There is also a case to be made that 2012 holdover Rick Santorum is being underestimated just as he was last time. But why have we forgotten about Scott Walker?

The Wisconsin governor’s appearance at an important Republican fundraiser in Iowa last night got him back on the radar of pundits, and rightly so. It’s not just because Walker teased Republicans with his repeated mentions of being raised in the first caucus state and his close ties to it, though that sort of rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a prelude to a presidential campaign pitch. The point about Walker dipping his toe into the Hawkeye State’s early politicking that potential presidential rivals are also engaging in is that he is not just another Republican governor. Though he got lost in the focus on Romney’s defeat and the dramatic rivalry in the Senate that is emerging between Rubio, Paul and Cruz on national issues like immigration, Walker still has a cult following among conservatives that stands him in good stead as GOP senators duke it out on divisive issues and Christie concentrates on winning re-election in a manner that continues to alienate the Republican grass roots.

It was just a year ago that Walker was actually the center of the Republican universe as he won a smashing victory in the recall election that liberals forced on Wisconsin. Though Rubio, Paul, Cruz and others are all vying for the affection of Tea Party voters, it was Walker who was on the cutting edge of the movement after he took office after the 2010 election and actually began to put its ideas to work. By challenging the public worker unions, he became the focus of an unprecedented attack by the left. Liberals who claim congressional Republicans are obstructing President Obama’s agenda cheered when the Democratic minority in the Wisconsin legislature used illegal tactics to try to stop it from meeting or voting. Union thugs tried to intimidate Republicans in massive demonstrations in Madison. But Walker, who went farther than other reform-minded governors that year, stood his ground and not only won those crucial legislative battles but actually gained a bigger majority when he was forced to face the voters more than two years earlier than scheduled in the recall election. Moreover, he can now boast that the $3.6 billion deficit he inherited has been transformed into a surplus.

The drama unfolding in Washington on immigration, the budget and the investigation of the various Obama administration scandals has diverted many of those thinking about 2016 from the idea that the strength of the GOP isn’t in the Senate or the House but out in the country with Republican governors. Walker hasn’t just talked about pushing back against the power of the government; he’s done something about it in a way that no individual senator can. He’s also done it in a manner that is far more comprehensive than even Christie’s impressive wins in New Jersey and he’s done it in a state that generally votes for Democrats in presidential elections.

There are steep obstacles to a Walker presidential run.

One is the fact that it is doubtful that Walker and Ryan would run against each other. If Ryan were to demonstrate serious interest in 2016—something that is by no means certain but which would be considered natural as the 2012 vice presidential nominee—that might edge Walker out of the race right there.

Another is the fact that Walker must, as Christie is doing this year, win re-election as governor before even thinking seriously about 2016. Unlike Christie, who has swung to the center in the last year and whose photo ops (including another one today) with President Obama have helped him in New Jersey (though hurt him with Republicans elsewhere), Walker hasn’t trimmed his sails. Democrats, who understand they overreached and alienated many voters who didn’t necessarily agree with Walker’s policies but thought the recall was wrong, will view Walker as one of their top targets in 2014. Though he will go into that race a favorite, he won’t have an easy time of it and will be pressed about whether he will serve out his second term.

Last, as long as events in Washington dominate the headlines, it’s hard for a politician who goes to work in Madison, Wisconsin to get attention. Walker won’t make it onto the radar of the national press unless and until he actually starts running for president.

But anyone who has heard the way Republicans react whenever Walker’s name is mentioned or he appears know that there is no figure in the party that has a tighter grip on the affections of its grass roots. While the big guns blaze away at each other on the cable news stations, it’s important to remember that if Walker runs, he could be a real factor in 2016 and not just in Iowa.

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GOP Ought to Trash Caucuses in 2016

The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.

As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.

While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.

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The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.

As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.

While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.

As Politico reports, the reaction from the camp of Rand Paul to the report was predictably over the top, with one of his supporters saying it meant “nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives and Ron Paul movement.” But this is an empty threat.

Rand Paul looks to be a far more formidable candidate and may well be able to appeal to a wider cross-section of Republicans than his extremist libertarian father Ron. But rather than showing confidence that he can parlay his filibuster-fueled celebrity into mainstream appeal, Paul’s faction appears to be worried that any nominating process that doesn’t tilt the playing field in the direction of a candidate that appeals to the base rather than the center of the party hurts them. The same goes for Santorum and others who are unhappy about the prospect of fewer states that can be won by out-organizing opponents rather than winning the votes of the most Republicans.

The willingness of some states to go on picking delegates by a process that seems to be a function of 19th and early 20th century “smoke-filled room” politics is itself an anachronism. Primaries were first championed a century ago by Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and others who sought to democratize the presidential selection process at the same time they were also seeking to end the practice of electing U.S. senators by the votes of legislatures rather than the citizens of each state.

Looking back at what happened in some of the caucus states last year, it’s easy to see why the Rough Rider and other Republicans thought this procedure should be relegated to the dustbin of history along with other practices, such as citizens having to announce their vote at the poll rather than having a secret ballot.

It’s not just that caucuses deter voter participation by their insular nature. It’s that the votes of even the people who are able to figure out how to get into each local caucus and then cast a ballot are not always respected. In several cases, those elected to participate in state conventions by caucus-goers wound up supporting candidates other than those to whom they were pledged or were even circumvented by maneuvers that allowed outliers like Ron Paul or even Santorum to win the convention delegates. That’s not only unfair but a turnoff to anyone inclined to vote in November.

The pushback against the RNC is all about the fear on the part of some in the base that a national party establishment will steal the GOP from them. Given the often-unwarranted critiques of the Tea Party heard by some party grandees and officeholders, that resentment is understandable. But changing the process to make it less of a circus in which the sideshows overshadow the serious candidates (as was often the case over the course of the numerous debates) or to maximize participation doesn’t preclude the nomination of a conservative.

Once upon a time, conservatives deplored state conventions and caucuses because they feared establishment types would use their better ground games to elect people like Gerald Ford over the more popular grass roots favorite Ronald Reagan. But now those who claim to have inherited the Reagan mantle want to skew the results to have the least representative candidate rather than one with a broad appeal.

That may serve the interests of a libertarian fringe that doesn’t have much confidence in their ability to seize control of the party even with a Rand Paul at their head, but it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the Republican Party. The RNC needs to ignore the critics and implement the report’s recommendations. While the new rules may allow Iowa to retain its traditional first-in-the-nation caucus, it is high time that unrepresentative state’s influence be cut back. Unless the goal of the 2016 GOP nominating process is to lose rather than to win the election, other caucus and state convention systems from the horse-and-buggy era of American politics ought to be trashed.

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Rubio Starting Early in Iowa

One trip to Iowa does not a candidacy make, but you don’t have to be a political junkie to interpret Marco Rubio’s star turn at a birthday party fundraiser for the state’s governor as the first shot fired in the race for the 2016 presidential race. As Politico reported over the weekend, the Florida senator’s appearance at Governor Terry Branstad’s shindig set off speculation about his intentions.

With three years and two months to go before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, all this talk about 2016 may seem incredibly premature. But in a state where you can never spend too much time buttering up the voters, Rubio has sent a clear signal that he isn’t shy about starting early to win their approval. Just as important, his speech reminded Republicans that what they need is not just a Hispanic but also someone who can appeal to middle class sensibilities in a way that Mitt Romney failed to do. Which means we can expect to hear a lot more about Rubio’s bartender father and his hotel maid mother than we ever did about George and Lenore Romney.

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One trip to Iowa does not a candidacy make, but you don’t have to be a political junkie to interpret Marco Rubio’s star turn at a birthday party fundraiser for the state’s governor as the first shot fired in the race for the 2016 presidential race. As Politico reported over the weekend, the Florida senator’s appearance at Governor Terry Branstad’s shindig set off speculation about his intentions.

With three years and two months to go before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, all this talk about 2016 may seem incredibly premature. But in a state where you can never spend too much time buttering up the voters, Rubio has sent a clear signal that he isn’t shy about starting early to win their approval. Just as important, his speech reminded Republicans that what they need is not just a Hispanic but also someone who can appeal to middle class sensibilities in a way that Mitt Romney failed to do. Which means we can expect to hear a lot more about Rubio’s bartender father and his hotel maid mother than we ever did about George and Lenore Romney.

The nation’s political landscape may be very different two years from now after the next midterm elections. By then, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have gotten a major boost from a 2013 re-election victory or have had his ambitions cut short by Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Paul Ryan may have burnished his reputation further by years of budget showdowns with President Obama or gotten bogged down in the fallout from those confrontations. Other potential candidates, such as Bobby Jindal, may have emerged as party favorites. Conservative Christians may have united behind recycled candidates like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, and enough time may have passed since 2008 for Jeb Bush to consider following in his father and brother’s footsteps.

All those potential nominees and many others will be schlepping to Iowa in the next couple of years. But by making himself conspicuous in Iowa this soon after the 2012 race, Rubio is showing that the diffidence he often expressed about the possibility of being nominated for vice president this past year shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of interest in the top spot on the next GOP ticket. It’s also a sign that Rubio intends to go big if he does run, since his speech showed that he wants to position himself as a Tea Party stalwart, an advocate of conservative family values, and a supporter of a robust national defense and foreign policy, as well as staking out ground with Hispanics and the middle class.

One speech doesn’t commit Rubio, and this also gives him plenty of time to make the sort of mistakes that could sink his hopes before they even get started. But it does serve notice to his potential rivals that he is probably interested and that they should think twice about underestimating him.

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Did Ron Paul Change the Republican Party?

During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.

But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.

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During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.

But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.

It should be conceded that Paul’s campaign was well-organized and highly effective in any state where delegates were chosen in caucuses where low turnouts minimized his main deficiency: the lack of broad support from the voters. Any place where tiny groups of motivated activists could seize control of the situation was one where Paul could make a good showing. Under those circumstances, Paul’s appeal to young, disaffected Democrats and independents who loved his isolationist stance on foreign policy and libertarian approach to social issues could make up for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republicans had little interest in his ideas.

Paul was able to briefly shine in Iowa and stole the show at times in debates with his bizarre attacks on the Federal Reserve or his defense of the Islamist tyrants of Iran. Some liked his unassuming style and were charmed by the fact that, unlike the others on stage at the debates, he had no real plans to be president and therefore made no effort to pander to the voters. But his sideshow carnival candidacy ran out of steam as primary voters began to choose between the first tier candidates and he began a streak of last place finishes that were a better indication of his importance than the Iowa results.

His exit from active campaigning will, no doubt, provoke some pundits to claim that in 2012, his libertarians stopped being a marginal factor in the GOP and entered the mainstream. But this is, at best, an exaggeration. There was some overlap between Paul’s strict libertarianism and Tea Party sentiment about the size of government, debt and taxes. But that common ground was dwarfed by the gap between Paul’s conspiratorial view of economics as well as his foreign policy views that had more in common with the knee-jerk anti-American doctrines of the far left than with that of most Republicans.

Though many on the left wrongly assume his extremist approach resonated with the party’s base, the truth was, he had little to offer average Republican voters. Nor can it be credibly asserted that he moved the conservative discussion in his direction on any issue where it had not already moved. Every time he opened his mouth, he demonstrated the strong distinction between his own extremist approach and that of even most Tea Party hardliners.

Despite all the noise he made and the delegates he won, on the day when his campaign ended with a whimper, the chasm that separates Paul’s followers from the rest of the Republican Party is no smaller than it was a year ago.

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Santorum Beats Romney in Certified Iowa Vote

There’s still no clear winner – and never will be – thanks to eight precincts in Iowa whose results are missing and couldn’t be certified before the deadline. But as it stands, Rick Santorum now leads Mitt Romney by 34 votes, though state Republican officials are still calling it a tie and saying it won’t change the delegate count:

GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 — a margin greater than the certified tally.

The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503.

It’s not a surprise that the ultra-thin gap of eight votes on caucus night didn’t hold up, but it’s tough to swallow the fact that there will always be a question mark hanging over this race, politics insiders said.

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There’s still no clear winner – and never will be – thanks to eight precincts in Iowa whose results are missing and couldn’t be certified before the deadline. But as it stands, Rick Santorum now leads Mitt Romney by 34 votes, though state Republican officials are still calling it a tie and saying it won’t change the delegate count:

GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 — a margin greater than the certified tally.

The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503.

It’s not a surprise that the ultra-thin gap of eight votes on caucus night didn’t hold up, but it’s tough to swallow the fact that there will always be a question mark hanging over this race, politics insiders said.

If the certification had taken place the day after the initial Iowa results, this could have made a difference, especially for Santorum. But at this point it isn’t going to change the race. Romney has already gotten the bounce from his Iowa “victory,” and South Carolinians aren’t going to suddenly flock to Santorum now that he gained another 42 votes in Iowa.

The minor downside here for Romney is he can’t claim the mantle of being the only GOP candidate to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Not really a big deal, since that card has already been played out. The upside for Santorum is these results will help him bat down Newt Gingrich’s constant assertions that Santorum should drop out of the race and help the former speaker take down Romney. At least Santorum can claim victory in one of the first two states – Gingrich’s best showing was fourth place.

This could make the race more interesting for other reasons. If Santorum won Iowa, and if Gingrich’s surge in South Carolina puts him over the top there, Romney’s air of inevitability disappears. At the very least, it might bring some excitement back to the primaries.

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Iowa Scrambles South Carolina Polls

In South Carolina, the polls are showing the same trend we’ve been seeing on repeat throughout the GOP race: the hot new rising star (in this case, Rick Santorum) is skyrocketing in the polls, while the old one (in this case, Newt Gingrich) is fading fast.

Exactly one month ago, Gingrich had peaked in South Carolina, leading the field at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. Today, he’s dropped down to third place, with just 18 percent in today’s Rasmussen poll. Meanwhile, Santorum – who was clocking in at 1 or 2 percent support last month – is now the frontrunner:

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In South Carolina, the polls are showing the same trend we’ve been seeing on repeat throughout the GOP race: the hot new rising star (in this case, Rick Santorum) is skyrocketing in the polls, while the old one (in this case, Newt Gingrich) is fading fast.

Exactly one month ago, Gingrich had peaked in South Carolina, leading the field at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. Today, he’s dropped down to third place, with just 18 percent in today’s Rasmussen poll. Meanwhile, Santorum – who was clocking in at 1 or 2 percent support last month – is now the frontrunner:

Rick Santorum, who two months ago had one percent support among likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, now is running a close second there with 24 percent of the vote.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the Palmetto State finds former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney still in the lead, earning 27 percent support from likely GOP primary voters, up from 23 percent in early November. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is in third with 18 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 11 percent.

Bringing up the rear are Texas Governor Rick Perry with five percent and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at two percent. Another two percent of these likely primary voters like some other candidate, and 11 percent remain undecided.

If the race were a game of musical chairs, Santorum would have sat down at the exact moment the music stopped. His success in Iowa was more serendipity than anything else. He was literally the last Romney alternative left when all the other options had been exhausted, and he just had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. If the caucuses had happened one month earlier, does anyone doubt Gingrich would have finished at the top of the field?

And with two weeks to go until the South Carolina primary, Santorum is also perfectly timed to succeed in the state, if recent history is any indicator. The rise-and-fall arc of the other candidates has tended to last about a month and a half, which means Santorum should still be at the height of his popularity when South Carolina Republicans start heading to the polls. Of course, plenty can happen during the next 15 days. But so far in the race, it’s been pretty consistent.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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Romney’s Flat Line Victory

Mitt Romney’s critics are pointing out right now that the candidate who claims to be the frontrunner and the most electable is still unable to get more than a quarter of Iowa Republicans to back him. They’re right about the fact that social conservatives and Tea Partiers simply can’t abide him, but in a six-way race, the idea that a top three finish (right now, he’s in a virtual tie with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul) is some kind of defeat is a misreading of his situation.

The greatest danger to Romney’s hopes of winning the nomination was for one of his conservative rivals to break out from the pack. So long as the various not-Romneys are fighting each other, the actual Romney wins. So no matter who comes out ahead in this three-way tangle, the fact that there is no single rival for him in the top tier constitutes a strategic victory for him. Even so, his own inability to do better than the same 20-25 percent he’s had all along doesn’t make him look good. That’s why a first place finish would be sweet for him no matter how narrow the margin of victory. And a third-place finish will feel like a defeat.

Mitt Romney’s critics are pointing out right now that the candidate who claims to be the frontrunner and the most electable is still unable to get more than a quarter of Iowa Republicans to back him. They’re right about the fact that social conservatives and Tea Partiers simply can’t abide him, but in a six-way race, the idea that a top three finish (right now, he’s in a virtual tie with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul) is some kind of defeat is a misreading of his situation.

The greatest danger to Romney’s hopes of winning the nomination was for one of his conservative rivals to break out from the pack. So long as the various not-Romneys are fighting each other, the actual Romney wins. So no matter who comes out ahead in this three-way tangle, the fact that there is no single rival for him in the top tier constitutes a strategic victory for him. Even so, his own inability to do better than the same 20-25 percent he’s had all along doesn’t make him look good. That’s why a first place finish would be sweet for him no matter how narrow the margin of victory. And a third-place finish will feel like a defeat.

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Goodbye Michele Bachmann

The first result that appears to have been decided in the Iowa caucus is that Michele Bachmann has finished sixth with only Jon Huntsman (who didn’t compete in the state) behind her. That Bachmann should have fallen so far so quickly says a lot about what a tough game presidential politics can be. Only five months ago, most pundits assumed Bachmann would be the leader in Iowa. Her victory in the Ames Straw Poll in August was purely symbolic, but at the time, she looked to have the social conservative and Tea Party vote in her pocket. But she never recovered from the entrance of Rick Perry on that very same day, and a few goofy comments about Texas vaccinations later, she was sent back to the second tier.

Bachmann’s demise shows that although the primary/caucus system can seem like a circus, it does perform a vital service in the way it vets candidates and rejects those who are unworthy of national attention. Bachmann is a passionate ideologue, but she never made a case for herself as a potential president. In the end, even those who shared her strong beliefs saw her as not at the same level as a more experienced Rick Santorum or even Rick Perry. Bachmann claims to be willing to go on and fight it out in other states, but she is kidding herself if she doesn’t realize her quest is finished.

The first result that appears to have been decided in the Iowa caucus is that Michele Bachmann has finished sixth with only Jon Huntsman (who didn’t compete in the state) behind her. That Bachmann should have fallen so far so quickly says a lot about what a tough game presidential politics can be. Only five months ago, most pundits assumed Bachmann would be the leader in Iowa. Her victory in the Ames Straw Poll in August was purely symbolic, but at the time, she looked to have the social conservative and Tea Party vote in her pocket. But she never recovered from the entrance of Rick Perry on that very same day, and a few goofy comments about Texas vaccinations later, she was sent back to the second tier.

Bachmann’s demise shows that although the primary/caucus system can seem like a circus, it does perform a vital service in the way it vets candidates and rejects those who are unworthy of national attention. Bachmann is a passionate ideologue, but she never made a case for herself as a potential president. In the end, even those who shared her strong beliefs saw her as not at the same level as a more experienced Rick Santorum or even Rick Perry. Bachmann claims to be willing to go on and fight it out in other states, but she is kidding herself if she doesn’t realize her quest is finished.

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Interesting Bits From the Entrance Polling

Fox News just released its “entrance polling” of caucus-goers in Iowa. I’m not sure how accurate this is as a prediction method (assuming that people who attend caucuses may be less certain about which candidate they’ll end up voting for, as opposed to traditional primaries). But it still includes a few stats to mull over:

1. As predicted, Ron Paul seems to be the most popular candidate with the young caucus-goers. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents between the ages of 17 and 29 say they’re supporting Paul. But, also as predicted, their turnout is far lower than the older age groups, and they make up just 14 percent of the total respondents.

2. Paul’s supporters are long-term, true believers, while Santorum’s supporters seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. A plurality of Paul supporters in the poll said they decided to back him “before December,” while a plurality of Santorum supporters decided to back him “just today.”

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Fox News just released its “entrance polling” of caucus-goers in Iowa. I’m not sure how accurate this is as a prediction method (assuming that people who attend caucuses may be less certain about which candidate they’ll end up voting for, as opposed to traditional primaries). But it still includes a few stats to mull over:

1. As predicted, Ron Paul seems to be the most popular candidate with the young caucus-goers. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents between the ages of 17 and 29 say they’re supporting Paul. But, also as predicted, their turnout is far lower than the older age groups, and they make up just 14 percent of the total respondents.

2. Paul’s supporters are long-term, true believers, while Santorum’s supporters seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. A plurality of Paul supporters in the poll said they decided to back him “before December,” while a plurality of Santorum supporters decided to back him “just today.”

3. Romney cleans up with the post-docs. Thirty-two percent of his supporters (a plurality) have a postgraduate degree – the highest percentage of any candidate.

4. Thirty-two percent of voters say that being able to beat President Obama is the “most important” quality in a candidate. Out of that group, 48 percent are backing Romney, 10 percent Santorum, and 7 percent Paul.

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What Would a Romney Loss Tonight in Iowa Look Like?

Mitt Romney is in a prime position heading into the Iowa caucuses tonight. But even though he’ll almost certainly finish in the top three, that doesn’t mean he can’t “lose.” Obviously, the best case scenario is Romney takes the top slot, and the second best is he finishes second to the untenable Ron Paul. A slightly worse outcome is if Romney comes in second to Rick Santorum, and the losing scenario is if he finishes in third, behind both of them.

The Washington Post sums up the impact a third-place showing would have on the Romney campaign:

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Mitt Romney is in a prime position heading into the Iowa caucuses tonight. But even though he’ll almost certainly finish in the top three, that doesn’t mean he can’t “lose.” Obviously, the best case scenario is Romney takes the top slot, and the second best is he finishes second to the untenable Ron Paul. A slightly worse outcome is if Romney comes in second to Rick Santorum, and the losing scenario is if he finishes in third, behind both of them.

The Washington Post sums up the impact a third-place showing would have on the Romney campaign:

If he places second to Paul or Santorum, Romney would still have outperformed expectations, and the narrative out of Iowa would be that he is poised to make a strong showing in the upcoming nominating contests.

But a third-place finish in Iowa – particularly since Romney has gained so much in the polls — could prove problematic.

It would fuel the argument that Romney is not the top choice for many conservatives, who still distrust Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. It would shatter Romney’s air of inevitability. And it would likely give his rivals a foothold in fundraising, which could mean a lengthier primary fight than originally expected.

Romney’s recent rise in the Iowa polls was unanticipated, but now that his campaign has set the expectation he’ll finish in the top two, anything short of that will be seen as somewhat of a failure. It wouldn’t be a crisis for his campaign by any means, but it would portend a longer, drawn-out primary and undermine the perception of inevitability that Romney’s been building back up.

The less problematic, but still not ideal, scenario for Romney would be if he came in second behind Santorum. While a Paul victory in Iowa would likely discredit the caucuses altogether, Romney would have to take Santorum more seriously as a challenger. It could mean sparring with Santorum at the upcoming debate, potentially sinking more money into attack ads, competing seriously in states Romney otherwise might not have to worry about, and, above all, drag out the primary battle.

That’s not to say the race is over if Romney wins the top spot tonight. But it would create a snowball effect of inevitability, especially heading into New Hampshire, which Romney already has locked up.

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A Path to the Nomination for Santorum?

With just hours to go before the caucuses in Iowa start, this is a moment for Rick Santorum to dream big. He’s got all the momentum heading into the final days with his rivals for the social conservative vote all fading fast. Ron Paul’s surge may be slowing as his record gets more scrutiny. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner and likely nominee, is in a strong position to finish first. But if he does, it will only be because he held onto the same 25 percent or so of the vote he had all along, which may keep him within range of Santorum’s last-minute push. Even a vicious public insult directed at him–such as the attack launched by Alan Colmes on Fox News yesterday that Peter wrote about earlier–has turned out to be a plus for Santorum. It not only garnered him sympathy but allowed the public to see a human side to a candidate who is more of a policy wonk than a glad-hander.

Let’s assume for a moment Santorum’s months of hard work beating the bushes in the backwoods counties of Iowa is about to pay off with an incredible upset victory. The question will then be not so much a post mortem of the losers’ efforts but whether the former Pennsylvania senator has a viable path to the nomination, or if he will be this year’s version of 2008 Iowa victor Mike Huckabee?

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With just hours to go before the caucuses in Iowa start, this is a moment for Rick Santorum to dream big. He’s got all the momentum heading into the final days with his rivals for the social conservative vote all fading fast. Ron Paul’s surge may be slowing as his record gets more scrutiny. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner and likely nominee, is in a strong position to finish first. But if he does, it will only be because he held onto the same 25 percent or so of the vote he had all along, which may keep him within range of Santorum’s last-minute push. Even a vicious public insult directed at him–such as the attack launched by Alan Colmes on Fox News yesterday that Peter wrote about earlier–has turned out to be a plus for Santorum. It not only garnered him sympathy but allowed the public to see a human side to a candidate who is more of a policy wonk than a glad-hander.

Let’s assume for a moment Santorum’s months of hard work beating the bushes in the backwoods counties of Iowa is about to pay off with an incredible upset victory. The question will then be not so much a post mortem of the losers’ efforts but whether the former Pennsylvania senator has a viable path to the nomination, or if he will be this year’s version of 2008 Iowa victor Mike Huckabee?

The obstacles for Santorum after Iowa have little to do with his message or politics. The conceit behind Santorum’s presidential bid was never farfetched, even when he was at the bottom of the polls. There was always a strong argument to be made that a former senator with impeccable social conservative credentials as well as a strong record on foreign policy would be attractive to Republicans. Indeed, such a profile seems a more likely resume than that of Romney, whose Massachusetts health care albatross should have made his nomination unthinkable had there been a more viable conservative alternative. Santorum’s problems were rooted in his landslide loss for re-election in 2006. Pennsylvanians rejected him because he was seen as a creature of the far right on social issues and out of touch on others. The notion of a man who could be beaten that badly in his own state being elected president seemed absurd, and that prevented Santorum from running anything but a shoestring campaign.

An Iowa victory will solve one part of that problem. Winning the caucus will make people forget about 2006 for a while. But Santorum’s meager resources outside of Iowa provide a more invidious comparison to the way Huckabee fell short after his moment in the winner’s circle four years ago. Santorum will have to raise a lot of money and recruit staff in a host of other primary and caucus states to be competitive elsewhere. Even after an Iowa victory that is easier said than done. There simply isn’t enough time for him to mount an effective challenge in South Carolina later this month, though Iowa could give him a boost there. But there is more than enough time for him to put up a good fight in the Super Tuesday states in March and those that follow.

If the rest of the conservative field bows out by the end of January–leaving Santorum as the leading conservative–then the talk of Romney’s inevitability might cease. Up against a moderate and an extremist like Paul, Santorum would suddenly not seem like a long shot.

Michele Bachmann might, despite signs of her desire to stay in the race, gratify Santorum by dropping out sooner rather than later. But if Rick Perry, who despite his terrible performance so far is holding onto his hopes of turning the tide in southern and western states, stays in along with Newt Gingrich, then the Santorum scenario starts looking less realistic.

Santorum’s general election prospects against Barack Obama are clearly less rosy than those of Romney, because his hard core social conservatism will, as it did in 2006, come back to bite him. But unless the field winnows down quickly for Santorum, then we’ll probably never get to find that out.

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Newt Must Find His Role–and Fast

The CBS “Early Show” interview with Newt Gingrich that Alana discusses below begins with Gingrich asking: “Am I the Humphrey Bogart role or the John Wayne role, in this movie collection you guys are putting together?” In a strange way, this may serve as an accurate postscript of Gingrich’s month leading up to tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

Gingrich has always been given to imagining himself playing a certain role–usually a leading role–in the political dramas of his career. Some scoff at what they see as the childishness of it, but Gingrich has often used it to his–and the Republican party’s–advantage by allowing him to overcome the cynicism of those around him and take a broader view of each challenge as they come along. But because Gingrich’s knowledge of history, as well as his imagination, are usually superior to those around him (especially the media), it was, forgive the pun, out of character for him to ask someone else what role he is to play.

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The CBS “Early Show” interview with Newt Gingrich that Alana discusses below begins with Gingrich asking: “Am I the Humphrey Bogart role or the John Wayne role, in this movie collection you guys are putting together?” In a strange way, this may serve as an accurate postscript of Gingrich’s month leading up to tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

Gingrich has always been given to imagining himself playing a certain role–usually a leading role–in the political dramas of his career. Some scoff at what they see as the childishness of it, but Gingrich has often used it to his–and the Republican party’s–advantage by allowing him to overcome the cynicism of those around him and take a broader view of each challenge as they come along. But because Gingrich’s knowledge of history, as well as his imagination, are usually superior to those around him (especially the media), it was, forgive the pun, out of character for him to ask someone else what role he is to play.

Yet, that timid uncertainty is fully consistent with what we’ve seen from Gingrich since he jolted to the lead and confidently announced he was going to be the nominee just a few weeks ago. Suddenly, he wasn’t an insurgent, an underdog, an inspiration to those who have been counted out when they still had one more round left in them. Suddenly, he was carrying the banner for his party.

The party’s voters and activists didn’t merely fall in line, however. And negative attacks–the natural reaction from the field to a new frontrunner–began taking their toll as Gingrich acted as though he was surrounded by a force field, as if the contest was over merely because he had said it was.

Alana noted an exchange that took place later in that same CBS interview: “I have to ask you, are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?” CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Norah O’Donnell asked Gingrich. “Yes,” Gingrich answered.

This is where Gingrich’s term as Speaker of the House comes roaring back. Fifteen years ago, David Brooks wrote a fantastic profile of Gingrich for an October 1996 issue of the Weekly Standard that, in many ways, could have been written today. Brooks recounts that after one event a local TV reporter asks Gingrich why the GOP’s message doesn’t seem to be gaining as much traction with the public as the party leadership expected. Gingrich’s response: “Because you lie about our record.”

Just like that, Gingrich’s reflexes kick in. The public sides with his critics, and Gingrich knows why: it’s because they are being manipulated. This is not to say some of Romney’s attack ads haven’t misrepresented the record–they have. But complaining to the refs is no way to win the game. And Gingrich has made this the centerpiece of his pre-caucuses push.

“Your ideas are spectacular. Your brain is just inspiring,” a woman told Gingrich at a campaign stop this week. But the sound bites that are catching the media’s attention are his lines about Mitt Romney’s tactics. Gone, seemingly, are the provocative ideas about taming the judicial branch, commonsense and catchy riffs on the administration’s goofball handling of the Keystone pipeline, the humorously feigned incredulity at the administration’s hypocrisy on Middle East issues.

Gingrich brought something to this contest no one else could: the combination of a record that boasts conservative victory–thanks to him, by the way, and his grand role playing–and an intellectual creativity and curiosity that operates independent of focus groups and targeted polling. And he read the temperature of the primary electorate perfectly: They were nervous about the prospect of nominating, as they did in 2008, a well-liked Republican who spent much of his career fighting high-profile battles against conservatives and then lost his nerve when his opponent was a liberal Democrat.

Gingrich did so many things right in the last few months of this campaign that it’s been jarring to watch him drop the ball mere yards from the goal line. But perhaps this is where he’s most comfortable. He’s back to being the underdog. Even he seems to doubt his own chances. The title of that Brooks profile is “What Happened to Newt Gingrich?” If Gingrich can’t right the ship in the new year, this may be the last time the political world asks that question.

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Obama Shouldn’t Be Encouraged By Iowa

The conventional wisdom among liberals is that despite a sinking economy and poor personal polling numbers, President Obama is actually in a good position to be re-elected. Democratic optimism stems from a belief that the Republican field is so poor the president can’t help but be made to look good by comparison. The evidence of considerable support for Ron Paul, who is a genuine problem for the Republicans, the unlikely rise of Rick Santorum, the comic antics and mishaps afflicting Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the now withdrawn Herman Cain have been enough to convince even some conservative commentators that the GOP dustup in Iowa has been an embarrassment for the party.

But Obama and his political team would be well advised to put aside this foolish optimism. The GOP field’s behavior hasn’t always been edifying, but the way the race has developed is not to the president’s advantage. Whether or not Mitt Romney finishes in first tonight, the most electable Republican will emerge from the state strengthened and with no credible alternative in position to stop him. That is the last thing Obama wanted to see happen in Iowa and what will follow in the upcoming states is likely to bring him even worse news.

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The conventional wisdom among liberals is that despite a sinking economy and poor personal polling numbers, President Obama is actually in a good position to be re-elected. Democratic optimism stems from a belief that the Republican field is so poor the president can’t help but be made to look good by comparison. The evidence of considerable support for Ron Paul, who is a genuine problem for the Republicans, the unlikely rise of Rick Santorum, the comic antics and mishaps afflicting Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the now withdrawn Herman Cain have been enough to convince even some conservative commentators that the GOP dustup in Iowa has been an embarrassment for the party.

But Obama and his political team would be well advised to put aside this foolish optimism. The GOP field’s behavior hasn’t always been edifying, but the way the race has developed is not to the president’s advantage. Whether or not Mitt Romney finishes in first tonight, the most electable Republican will emerge from the state strengthened and with no credible alternative in position to stop him. That is the last thing Obama wanted to see happen in Iowa and what will follow in the upcoming states is likely to bring him even worse news.

So long as the political focus is on the clown car of candidates who won’t be nominated by the Republicans, it’s easy for Democrats to claim their opponents are a joke. But the cavalcade of conservative contenders who each took a turn proving they weren’t ready for prime time only served to pave the way for the one Republican who poses a real threat to Obama: Mitt Romney. That was not the most likely outcome of this contest as Romney’s lack of a connection to Tea Partiers and social conservatives had seemed certain to doom his candidacy back in the summer.

As to whether having to compete with right-wingers will taint Romney, here again, Democrats are letting their wishes override common sense. Romney needed to reach out to conservatives to make it a little easier for them to make their peace with him once he’s the nominee. A lot of people on the right are unhappy about the prospect of a man whom they believe to be a soulless, non-ideological technocrat leading their party. But if Obama really thinks most conservatives would prefer to stay home in November and let him be re-elected, he’s dreaming.

The point about the GOP also-rans is though they are the center of attention today, they will quickly fade from the spotlight once their candidacies end. That end will come sooner for some than others. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum appear to be set up for a long primary run against Romney as the GOP’s delegate selection rules always intended. But the contrast will not hurt the eventual nominee in the eyes of the general public. Paul’s prominence is a problem to Republicans. However, his presence in the race will be an opportunity for Romney to emphasize his mainstream views on foreign policy and his opposition to extremism. That won’t hurt him in the general election.

Nor will the exercise of having to stay on his toes on the stump for an extra few months. In particular, Santorum may well do his party a service by serving as the eventual nominee’s tough but not dirty sparring partner. The result will be a better Republican candidate next fall. Like the strange turn of events that left Romney as the inevitable nominee, this isn’t good news for Obama or his party.

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Are We Heading for a Photo Finish in Iowa?

Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:

The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

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Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:

The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

The poll still shows Paul dropping – down 4 percent since earlier in the week – and his favorability numbers have fallen 21 points. But is it possible that his downward momentum is coming late enough that he can still eke out a win in Iowa?

At HotAir, Ed Morrissey is dubious, and notes the strange makeup of PPP’s “like caucus-goer” demographic:

More to the point, though, only half of the “1,340 likely Republican caucus voters” surveyed by PPP caucused with Republicans in 2008.  Sixteen percent caucused with Democrats in that cycle, and over a third (34 percent) didn’t caucus with either party in 2008.  Not shockingly, Paul wins 23 percent of those who didn’t caucus at all in 2008, and 28 percent among those who caucused with the Democrats.

Obviously, that composition favors Paul, who’s popular with an unusual coalition of young, Democratic-leaning voters in Iowa. But the question has always been whether he would be able to get this eclectic group out to the polls. That’s why Paul’s modest drop in support in the PPP poll may not be as worrying for him as his massive drop in favorability. It appears that few, if any, voters will be open to supporting him if they haven’t decided to already.

Santorum, in contrast, is the candidate who’s most poised to make gains, according to PPP. And the opposition research that’s just started trickling out on him is probably coming too late to make a difference:

Santorum’s net favorability of 60/30 makes him easily the most popular candidate in the field. No one else’s favorability exceeds 52 percent. He may also have more room to grow in the final 48 hours of the campaign than the other front runners: 14 percent of voters say he’s their second choice to 11 percent for Romney and only 8 percent for Paul.

Unlike Santorum and Paul, Romney’s support is holding steady, and his campaign is clearly unfazed by the shuffling momentum of his two closest competitors. “If we win, it’s fantastic. If Santorum wins and we are second, it’s good. If Paul wins and we are second, it’s great. Any of the likely outcomes is positive for us,” one top Romney advisor told Mike Allen. Out of the top three, Romney is the only candidate with a clear path to the nomination, which is probably why he’s taken an increasingly confident attitude heading into the caucuses.

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Why Santorum’s Surge Has Staying Power

The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.

If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.

On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.

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The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.

If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.

On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.

The previous not-Romney’s all looked fine from a distance, but withered under scrutiny. Santorum, in contrast, has grown more impressive as the race has progressed. Yes, he has plenty of his own flaws, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But so far, his baggage doesn’t seem to be of the fatal sort. There’s no history of adultery, no sexual harassment charges, no problems with articulation, no shoot-from-the-hip attitude. Santorum’s debate performances have been excellent, and he’s shown a notable grasp of foreign policy issues. He also has impeccable social conservative credentials.

There are legitimate questions of electability; those can’t be diminished. Santorum is a bete noir to the left when it comes to social issues, which means that any imaginable glob of mud that can be chucked at him will be chucked – and that could make it very difficult for him to appeal to independent and centrist voters. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain positions conservatives must hold absolutely firm on, even if they enrage the left. But when considering whether to support Santorum, conservatives will need to decide whether opposition to gay marriage and birth control are issues they would risk dying on the hill for.

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Romney in the Catbird Seat

As we approach the eve of the Iowa caucus, the broad outlines of the GOP race remains what it has been from the beginning: Mitt Romney is doing well among less conservative/non-Tea Party voters while the more conservative voters have not coalesced around any alternative to Romney. And contrary to the  impression of some, Romney is not deeply disliked by most conservative voters. He may not be their first choice, but he’s done more than enough to make him acceptable to most Republicans. Governor Romney may not inspire passionate support on the right, but neither does he inspire passionate opposition.

Beyond that, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that since 1980, no Republican (in a contested race) has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In fact, the pattern has been the same: one candidate wins in Iowa, another wins in New Hampshire, and one of those two wins in South Carolina– and, eventually, the nomination.

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As we approach the eve of the Iowa caucus, the broad outlines of the GOP race remains what it has been from the beginning: Mitt Romney is doing well among less conservative/non-Tea Party voters while the more conservative voters have not coalesced around any alternative to Romney. And contrary to the  impression of some, Romney is not deeply disliked by most conservative voters. He may not be their first choice, but he’s done more than enough to make him acceptable to most Republicans. Governor Romney may not inspire passionate support on the right, but neither does he inspire passionate opposition.

Beyond that, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that since 1980, no Republican (in a contested race) has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In fact, the pattern has been the same: one candidate wins in Iowa, another wins in New Hampshire, and one of those two wins in South Carolina– and, eventually, the nomination.

To briefly review the history: In 1980, Ronald Reagan lost in Iowa (to George H.W. Bush), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. In 1988, George H.W. Bush lost in Iowa (to Robert Dole), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. In 1996, Bob Dole won in Iowa, lost in New Hampshire (to Pat Buchanan), and won in South Carolina. In 2000, George W. Bush won in Iowa, lost in New  Hampshire (to John McCain), and won in South Carolina. And in 2008, John McCain lost in Iowa (to Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney), won in New Hampshire, and won in South Carolina. All of which means that if Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has a significant lead right now (nearly 20 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average), it’s hard to see how he would lose the nomination, particularly given his enormous advantages in money and organization.

The board can still be scrambled, of course. It was only two weeks ago, after all, when Newt Gingrich was ahead by double digits in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida and was closing in on Romney in New Hampshire. This led Gingrich to tell ABC’s Jake Tapper, “”It’’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’’m going to be the nominee.”” But Gingrich’s support in Iowa and New Hampshire looks to be collapsing (by some counts he’s lost 20 points in 20 days). Romney’s team surely knows if the former Massachusetts governor can win in Iowa– and right now he leads Ron Paul in some polls and trails him in others –the outcome of this race may be decided almost as soon as it began. If so, it would be a remarkable achievement by Romney.

Caveats are important to insert. There are a dozen other scenarios one can imagine. Not a single vote has yet been cast in this election. There are huge numbers of undecided voters. And proportional representation can string things out. But this much is clear: only five days away from the Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney is in the catbird seat.

 

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Santorum’s Moment Finally Arrives

Two months ago, just as Herman Cain’s campaign was about to start to unravel, I wrote that perhaps it was Rick Santorum’s turn for a surge. I was, of course, wrong. It was Newt Gingrich’s turn back at the end of October and the beginning of November to take off and to be, at least for a few weeks, something of a frontrunner. But with only days to go before voters in Iowa cast the first actual votes of the caucus/primary season, it looks like Santorum’s moment has arrived. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday shows Santorum surging ahead of his competitors for the social conservative vote into third place among likely caucus goers with 16 percent.

Santorum’s timing is impeccable. With Gingrich collapsing (the poll shows him fading to fourth place with only 14 percent, which is down from 33 percent less than a month ago) and Michele Bachmann’s campaign in chaos as her Iowa chairman defected to Ron Paul yesterday, the former Pennsylvania senator looks to be in excellent shape to win what he called the “conservative primary” over Bachmann and Rick Perry.

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Two months ago, just as Herman Cain’s campaign was about to start to unravel, I wrote that perhaps it was Rick Santorum’s turn for a surge. I was, of course, wrong. It was Newt Gingrich’s turn back at the end of October and the beginning of November to take off and to be, at least for a few weeks, something of a frontrunner. But with only days to go before voters in Iowa cast the first actual votes of the caucus/primary season, it looks like Santorum’s moment has arrived. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday shows Santorum surging ahead of his competitors for the social conservative vote into third place among likely caucus goers with 16 percent.

Santorum’s timing is impeccable. With Gingrich collapsing (the poll shows him fading to fourth place with only 14 percent, which is down from 33 percent less than a month ago) and Michele Bachmann’s campaign in chaos as her Iowa chairman defected to Ron Paul yesterday, the former Pennsylvania senator looks to be in excellent shape to win what he called the “conservative primary” over Bachmann and Rick Perry.

Though it is probably a reach to think Santorum could overtake Mitt Romney, who finds himself in first with 25 percent, it is not out of the question in such a volatile environment. Just as possible is for him to leap over Paul, who is currently in second with 22 percent.

While the long term impact of a result next Tuesday that would mirror these poll numbers would probably mean Romney was the inevitable nominee, just by getting himself into third, Santorum ensures his campaign will not end on Jan. 4. Having concentrated all of his meager resources on Iowa, it’s not clear what his next step will be other than that he will have one.

The same can’t be said for Bachmann, who has also gone all in on Iowa. She was already slipping even further back in the polls before this latest setback, but this stab in the back from Kent Sorenson, her state chairman, must be considered the coup de grace for her hopes of getting back into the race. While Rick Perry’s deep pockets will enable him to keep at it for at least a few more weeks even if he has little chance, Bachmann is toast.

An Iowa result that left Romney on top, Paul with considerable support and Santorum as top social conservative left with a chance would set up an interesting three-way battle as the race progresses to Super Tuesday and the later primaries. As was the case in 2008, Paul will not go away. Indeed, despite his extremism and the fact that he has no chance to be the nominee, he will again hang around for as long as he wants even if his chances of winning a primary after Iowa are slim.

As for Santorum, he can put himself in position to be the Mike Huckabee of 2012, giving social conservatives and Tea Partiers a more responsible protest vote against the inevitability of Romney than Paul would provide. The proportional delegate vote in most states is set up to avoid an early sweep for the frontrunner, so there will be no reason for him to drop out, especially since a good showing in Iowa will help him raise money. It probably won’t be enough to stop Romney in the end, but it will give him hope and help keep the race interesting.

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