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In the end, the numbers didn’t matter. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum slugged it out precinct by precinct in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night and when the dust settled, Mitt Romney came away with a razor thin victory.
But the winner in Iowa was evident even before the caucuses began. Rick Santorum came from single digits less than 10 days ago to challenge Mitt Romney and Ron Paul for Iowa supremacy. The former Pennsylvania senator’s performance — fueled by a herculean work ethic that saw him visit every county in the state and hold hundreds of town hall meetings — was confirmation of the efficacy of retail politics in an age that places a premium on money to buy advertising and organization.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul’s strong third place finish was still a blow to his campaign as the Texas congressman failed in the “expectations game.” He was expected to win or place second to Mitt Romney, but Santorum’s surge in the final hours probably hurt his chances for him to realize that result.
The also-rans in the race — Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman — can take little comfort from their weak showings. It is likely that one or two of those candidates will drop out — perhaps as early as Wednesday.
Mitt Romney didn’t hurt himself in Iowa but he didn’t help himself either. Entrance polls taken as attendees were walking into the caucus sites gave him some heartening news, however. By far the most important issue among caucus goers was finding a candidate who could beat President Barack Obama. Nearly 1/3 of attendees said that electability was their primary concern and Romney won nearly half of those votes. Romney also scored well with those who believe the economy was most important to them. He now moves on to New Hampshire where he holds a commanding lead over Ron Paul 47-17, with Santorum at 10% according to a CNN “flash poll” taken on Tuesday night of New Hampshire residents.
Every four years we hear the same complaints about Iowa being “First in the Nation” to register an opinion on the presidential candidates for both parties. It’s too white, or it’s too rural, or Evangelical Christians are too plentiful. It doesn’t matter. The state jealously guards its status as the initial test for the candidates and the Republican National Committee appears to be in no mood to change its privileged position.
That said, the caucuses can be seen as a rudimentary test of strength and popularity with GOP voters and as such, it begins the winnowing process that usually claims one or two candidates who decide not to move on to New Hampshire. The most likely casualty from Tuesday night’s festivities could be Michele Bachmann who told pre-caucus audiences that she had already “bought our tickets to go to South Carolina” in order to compete in that state’s primary on January 21. But a sixth place finish in Iowa and with little money and not much of an organization in the Palmetto State, it seems a quixotic quest for her to hope that lightening would strike and bring her victory there.
Rick Perry’s weak 5th place finish has dealt a body blow to his campaign. But the candidate swears he will move on to South Carolina, skipping New Hampshire to concentrate on the far friendlier climes of the Palmetto State. But in his speech after the caucuses ended, Perry hinted that he may drop out after all. He is returning to Texas to “reassess” his campaign.
Newt Gingrich finished a distant 4th, but will soldier on, at least through the South Carolina primary and perhaps all the way to Florida which holds its contest on January 31. For the former speaker of the House, it’s gotten personal. The barrage of negative ads from Romney independent groups tore him down and severely damaged his candidacy. Newt has already demonstrated that he is taking off the gloves and will go after Romney hard wherever they are competing. Whether that is a winning strategy for him remains to be seen.
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