Iowa: Game on
The race to determine the Republican nominee for president has finally begun, with voters in Iowa being the first to express their preferences. And their preference is... no preference.
The vote count revealed a statistical tie between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — with 30,015 and 30,007 votes, respectively — with Ron Paul close behind (26,186 votes). These represent three distinct wings of the Republican Party: the pragmatic wing (Romney), the social conservative wing (Santorum) and the libertarian (small government, isolationist) wing (Paul).
The three-way contest was fun for the news networks — "Romney's ahead by six votes [out of 120,000]! Now Santorum's ahead by four votes!" — but it's not terribly important: under new rules, Iowa's 25 delegates to the party convention will be split among the winners.
Rise to the top
The big results are Santorum's remarkable rise from obscurity to the top, Newt Gingrich's banishment to fourth place, and Rick Perry's apparent departure from the race.
As Santorum took the stage, he said: "Game on." After giving thanks to God, he said, "The central issue in this race is freedom: whether government can do things for us better than we can do ourselves." Then he equated the Democrats' support of a social-welfare system and a right to health care with Mussolini's Italy, which his grandfather left in 1925.
Why Santorum? Well, he's not Romney. Romney is backed by a party establishment in a strategic move to compete against Barack Obama in November. Republican consultant Alex Castellanos describes it as "more of an arranged marriage than love".
To many Republicans, the whole campaign since the summer has been a contest between Romney and Not Romney. The search for Not Romney has put one candidate after another at the top of the polls. Santorum was the only one left who hadn't had his time in the sun. As Erick Erickson, editor of the Republican political website Redstate.com, put it, "He was the last man standing."
The suddenness of Santorum's victory was unexpected. As recently as Christmas, Santorum had won over only four percent of supporters. But then the half of voters who were undecided made up their minds, giving Santorum credit for being the first candidate to visit all 99 of Iowa's counties. He's basically met every Iowan and convinced many of them of his conservative credentials. The more they got to know him, the better they liked him.
It's personal now
He couldn't have done this without an opening, however, and that was provided by Romney and Paul. The two accelerated Gingrich's decline by airing countless attack ads on television. In a bitter and angry speech, Gingrich indicated he wasn't going to take that lying down.
It's personal now. Gingrich is angry, he's on his way out, and he's going to try to pull Romney down with him. Although Gingrich is still favored in South Carolina and Florida, which will vote later this month, his anger won't help him. "Newt has no successful history of launching attacks on others that don't boomerang on himself," said former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The biggest shock came when Texas Governor Rick Perry said that he'd be returning to Texas to reassess his chances. We can almost certainly expect his withdrawal in the coming days. Michele Bachmann said she'd keep fighting, but it was clear that her campaign was also on its last legs. [Update: Bachmann decided the next morning to leave the race.]
Perry and Bachmann can't quit. God told them to be president!
Mitt Romney is the clear favorite in next week's New Hampshire primary — he was governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Ron Paul has amassed a formidable "war chest" which he'll continue to spend on advertising, and he has strong supporters in a state whose motto is "Live free or die". Although Iowa confirmed Santorum as a credible candidate, he is also a last-minute candidate. The next few primaries are coming up at a rate of one a week, and it will take him a few weeks to organize a bigger campaign staff. The only actual policy he has thought up — a plan to attract manufacturing back to the United States — is still very vaguely formulated. All the rest is talk about God and abortion.
In the grand scheme of things, the Iowa result means only one thing: one of these top three will very likely be the eventual Republican nominee, and at the moment, it still looks like Romney.
— Mike Pilewski
Read more about Election 2012.