Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally Tuesday in Des Moines. (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty…)
Reporting from Des Moines — There are three possible outcomes in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, barring a surprise of enormous proportions. All are good for Mitt Romney.
Scenario One: Romney wins: This, obviously, would be the best result for the former Massachusetts governor. Whether it's a narrow victory, as the polls suggest, or larger than expected, as some in his camp are privately predicting, a win is a win.
It would strongly position Romney to accomplish something that no non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has ever done: sweep the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, back to back.
That would help Romney make quick work of the GOP fight. It will be months before anyone can secure a mathematical lock on the nomination, but a sweep, or near-sweep, of the January contests -- in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and, especially, Florida -- would make it all but impossible for him to be stopped.
That is particularly true if the two better-known candidates who might have had the potential to go the distance with Romney -- Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry -- finish out of the top tier in Iowa. Their path forward becomes extremely tough, if that's the case.
Why it's good for Romney: A Romney win would prompt an immediate question: Can he be stopped? The most likely answer would be no. To his already considerable advantages -- money, organization, campaign experience -- he'd be able to add momentum. An unbeatable combination.
Scenario Two: Santorum wins: If Rick Santorum caps a late-breaking spurt in the polls with a caucus victory, he will become the candidate many Republicans have spent months searching for: the anti-Romney.
That achievement, and it would be significant, would come with many caveats. Yes, he would be propelled overnight to worldwide prominence. The "Who is Rick Santorum?" and "Can he become the GOP nominee?" story lines would dominate media coverage going into next Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, where, at last check, Santorum was polling just 4% of the vote.
Although his social and religious conservatism isn't the best fit for New Hampshire, where Romney is the prohibitive favorite, Santorum has campaigned there, and winning Iowa would make him a competitor for a top-tier finish, though probably not a victory. Romney, who is basically a home-state candidate there, has been leading by 20 points or more in recent polling.
Santorum has strong assets, looking down the road: Unlike the GOP pair who might have had a better shot against Romney -- Gingrich and Perry -- he's not self-destructive. Instead, Santorum is down-to-earth, a fresh-faced straight talker who has honed his routine on the stump and knows how to play the game in Washington (a mixed blessing, of course, with voters furious over D.C.'s dysfunction; see below). Despite a 16-year voting record in Congress, he's got no significant history of flip-flops and, with an Iowa win, he would have proven appeal to the party's conservative base, particularly on social issues like abortion.
Why it's good for Romney: Unlike Gingrich or Perry, Santorum lacks the ability to tap the GOP's big-donor network. An Iowa victory would produce a windfall of contributions, but he couldn't compete financially with Romney when the campaign turns to big states, where paid media is important (starting with Florida, at the end of this month). At the same time, an Iowa victory would turn the spotlight on Santorum's shortcomings, including a history of earmarked spending when he was in Congress and work as a Washington consultant after Pennsylvania voters booted him from office, decisively, in 2006.
One of the reasons Santorum did so well at the end in Iowa, in fact, is that he emerged too late for negative ads to erode his burst of popularity. That free ride would end with a caucus win, and, so far, no would-be anti-Romney candidate has been able to withstand that level of scrutiny and attacks.
Scenario Three: Ron Paul wins: The iconoclastic congressman from the Houston area has been running for president, on and off, for a quarter-century. An Iowa caucus victory would richly reward that determination and stand as the high point of a long national political career. He's the best organized candidate, with a strong libertarian streak and appeal to tea-party voters, who often call him their godfather for his long, often lonely fight against federal spending.
His low-key, aw-shucks anti-politician appeal has gained him growing support, especially on college campuses from those young enough to be his grandchildren. And his die-hard supporters have been waiting for years to show the world that he deserves more attention than he's been getting. Winning Iowa would propel him, and those ideas, to grand, new heights.