Sifting the Iowa entrails
The people of Iowa have spoken!
Actually, let me amend that: Two percent of all registered Iowa voters, in a state with one percent of the U.S. population, have spoken!
Nevertheless, I know that attention must be paid, if only because everyone else is paying attention. And, yes, the Iowa caucuses have indeed managed to clarify a few things about the Republican race (sort of), so let's take the candidates one at a time:
Mitt Romney. This guy is clearly one of the weakest front-runners in modern memory. Four years ago in Iowa, he got 30,021 votes - 25 percent of the overall turnout. This time, he and his Mitt-friendly "independent" groups dumped over $4 million into Iowa, and he wound up with six fewer votes (30,015) - 25 percent of the overall turnout. Four million bucks, and he couldn't move the needle. Yeah, his scintillating eight-vote margin over Rick Santorum means that he won. But, once again, he was spurned by 75 percent of voting Iowans - just as he continues to be spurned, in the polls, by 75 percent of Republicans nationwide.
And why should we be impressed by his winning statewide tally of 30,015? Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia gets more fans than that for a torrential rain delay.
Romney is a lot like Alex Webster, the former New York Giants fullback. When I was a kid, Webster was always slamming into the wall of opposition and grinding out two yards at a time. My family nicknamed him "Two-Yard Webster." Same deal today. Two-Yard Romney has gained a little ground in a cloud of dust, but the unimpressed defensive line feels more emboldened than ever. Which brings us to...
Rick Santorum. We can't yet know how long the era of sweater-vest chic will last, mostly because he has little money or organization beyond Iowa. He could wind up like Dick Gephardt, the Democratic candidate who peaked with a labor-fueled win in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, only to subsequently crash and burn. But in the short run, at least, Pennsylvania's ambassador to the Christian right can make life miserable for the more moderate Mitt; indeed, Santorum has already emailed this snarky message to his supporters: "Now is the time to act or get stuck with a bland, boring career politician who will lose to Barack Obama."
In New Hampshire this weekend, and presumably in South Carolina next week, Santorum will seek to cash in on his strong Iowa showing by selling himself as the candidate of "bold ideas" who would draw a "clear contrast" with Barack Obama - as opposed to the "bland, boring" Mitt, who is way too vanilla for Rick's taste. In the next debate, slated for Saturday night, Santorum will make this case. If he can avoid a wipeout next Tuesday in New Hampshire, a state he has barely contested, he could seriously harass Mitt in the religious precincts of South Carolina. All told, the big question now is whether Iowa gives him enough Santorumentum to unite the anti-Mitt movement conservatives.
Ron Paul. The libertarian niche candidate hit his ceiling in Iowa. He'll stick around all the way to the convention, in the hopes of influencing a plank or two in the party platform. In the meantime, he'll keep working some of the other caucus states.
Newt Gingrich. This is one ticked off dude. He views his fourth-place Iowa finish as a major personal insult to one of history's most seminal political figures. Romney's allies had the temerity to run negative TV ads against him - oh, the effrontery! He seems to have forgotten his own copious history as a partisan gut-fighter. He seems to have overlooked the fact that the ads worked precisely because they (mostly) told the truth, because they tapped into Iowans' preexisting suspicions about the guy. No matter. Newt feels like a great personal injustice has been done to him (sort of like in 1995, when he whined about the rear seat he had been assigned during a trip on Air Force One), and this is when Newt is most dangerous.
Watch what he says about Romney in the New Hampshire debate on Saturday night. Apparently, he intends to conjure the anarchic spirit of Animal House, by morphing into the Deathmobile and wreaking havoc on Mitt's parade. Newt will sputter and roar for a while longer, at least long enough to delight the Obama campaign team. No need to bloody Romney when they've got peevish Newt dissing Romney as a liar with no fixed convictions. For Democrats, the Saturday debate should be a popcorn fest.
Rick Perry. Hands down, he goes down in history as the worst product rollout since the Ford Motor Company unveiled the Edsel in 1958. Not even his targeting of gay people could move the Iowa right-wingers his way. Now he's heading home to "assess" his status - which is typically code for goodbye, but apparently not in Perry's case. He says he's staying in the race. And, hey, why not: He still has more donor money to waste. Soon enough, he'll realize that it's impossible to build a viable candidacy on brain freezes and Texas swagger.
Michele Bachmann. Good night and good luck. She's heading back to the safe House seat where she belongs. The only question now is whether Bachmann and Perry supporters in South Carolina will coalesce behind Santorum and make life tougher for Romney. Mitt probably would have preferred that Bachmann and Perry both contend strongly in South Carolina, in order to keep the religious right voters divided among themselves. Will they now flock en masse to Santorum? The newest flavor of the week indeed has a window of opportunity - if he can ramp up his money and ground game with all deliberate speed, and if he can withstand the inevitable press scrutiny that goes with the limelight. If so, Romney-Santorum would pit pragmatism against ideology.
And lastly, I'm just wondering: If Barack Obama is supposedly so beatable, and conservative Republicans are supposedly so turned on by the prospect of beating him, then how come the Iowa turnout was nearly identical to what it was in 2008, when the party was demoralized by eight years of Bush and six years of Iraq? The tally in '08 was 118,411; the tally this time was 122,247 - and that includes the large number of independents who took advantage of same-day registration to vote for Ron Paul. Once again, 80 percent of registered Iowa Republicans stayed home.
But why? I assume they're as fervent as ever about replacing Obama. The only explanation is that the Republican rank and file still isn't fervent about the motley crew that is vying to replace Obama. That was really the biggest story last night. In Mitt's parlance, I'll betcha $10,000 it was.
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