Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Iowa has a long history of not predicting the Republican nominee, yet it’s order as first “real” votes in the GOP delegate selection process makes it an event which must be covered. It’s timing, however, on the evening of the first business day after a long holiday season makes it difficult to gage what is happening in the days leading up to the votes.
The reality is that the race will change dramatically over the next week. It will be shaped by the news coverage and analysis of what happened, and what the collective punditry projects what will happen over the next two months. Wednesday, the circus moved to New Hampshire to begin anew.
The reality of Iowa itself is that it won’t change much. This has long since been a race between Mitt Romney and the not-Mitts. Tuesday night in Iowa, the field of not-Mitts was reduced by two.
Rick Perry is headed back to Texas to “reassess” his campaign. Flush with resources and a large organizational effort in Iowa, Perry’s high point was the day he entered the race. He joins a line of Texans such as Connally and Graham that had high hopes for a Presidential nomination but ended up quickly out of contention.
Michele Bachmann – the winner of the early Ames Straw Poll – has effectively ended her candidacy whether she chooses to accept that fact or not. Her legacy is one that added little constructive to the dialogue, but managed to end the candidacy of Tim Pawlenty and mortally wound that of Rick Perry along the way. She has long since been the Republican candidate least burdened by fact, and if she should remain, the candidate least burdened with Reality.
Ron Paul remains a significant factor but not a serious threat to win the nomination. His third place showing in Iowa demonstrates that he will remain highly visible part of the primary, yet the organization and resources he amasses along the way are much more likely to end up used to support either Paul’s third party run or that of Gary Johnson who recently left the Republican campaign to compete for the Libertarian Party’s nomination.
John Huntsman, who skipped Iowa altogether, will finally get a look by some who are not delighted with their other choices. Barring a surge in New Hampshire polls over the next week, Huntsman’s brief look from conservatives will likely be short lived.
Rick Santorum was the man of the evening, who now will have all the focus – and related scrutiny – that has come with being the favorite not-Mitt. Iowa is a place that is sympathetic to social conservatives, and Santorum early on staked claim on social issues while most other candidates focused on fiscal issues. New Hampshire is likely to be less kind to Santorum, and national media and opponents will likewise no longer ignore Santorum’s voting record nor his spectacular defeat in his 2006 Senate race.
Gingrich remains the biggest wild card of the remaining not-Mitts. He entered the holiday period as the apparent front runner, but negative ads, a few campaign missteps such failing to meet the Virginia qualification requirements, and a period of no debates which had showcased Gingrich’s strengths combined to a 4th place Iowa finish. Yet a nationwide Gallop poll released before Tuesday’s caucus votes showed Gingrich in a statistical tie with Romney. He’s reasonably competitive in New Hampshire, and is openly staking the future of his campaign on South Carolina. Debates will also resume anew, returning Gingrich to his favorite platform.
Gingrich remains the best positioned not-Mitt to endure the rigors required of a national campaign. For all the press he received for submitting too few signatures for the Virginia ballot, it should be noted that Santorum didn’t even bother to attempt to qualify. Santorum’s organizational learning curve will be much more substantial than Gingrich’s uphill climb.
And then there’s Mitt Romney, the winner of Iowa by 8 votes. He remains the best organized and has the best funding. Yet despite years of planning, he received roughly the same number of votes in Iowa as he did in 2008. Republican insiders see him as the safe pick and the best way to end the nomination process early to focus resources toward defeating Barack Obama. Party activists continue to question his true conservative credentials.
As the field of not-Mitts narrows, it remains to be seen if Romney can build support, or if the not-Mitt vote begins to coalesce around Gingrich or Santorum. The advantage remains with Romney, but the race between these three is wide open as New Hampshire approaches.