Mitt Romney ran up big margins in Iowa's most urban areas, Des Moines… (Los Angeles Times )
DES MOINES — Mitt Romney may not have scored a huge victory in Iowa, but he still walked away a winner.
Elections are often as much about subtraction as addition, and what didn't happen in the caucuses was more important than what did: No giant-slayer emerged as a potent alternative to the former Massachusetts governor whom many voters can't seem to love.
The two contenders who once seemed most likely to pose a threat to Romney -- former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- fell flat and their campaigns are probably over, for all intents, barring an incredible comeback.
Next up is New Hampshire, on Tuesday. Despite its contrarian nature -- Granite Staters pride themselves on ignoring and often reversing the Iowa results -- Romney, a part-time resident, enters the final furious week there with a giant lead in polls.
The combination of Iowa's fallout and a win in New Hampshire would make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for any of the runners-up to challenge Romney. Unlike the other candidates grasping for a foothold, Romney would be able to weather a defeat in South Carolina, his weakest of the early-voting states and one where expectations for him are exceedingly low. A victory Jan. 31 in Florida, where his superior resources may overwhelm any rival still standing, would effectively knock out the rest of the field.
In fact, Florida has long seemed the ideal place for Romney to seize the nomination. It is not only big but diverse and, not least, expensive -- qualities that play to the advantage of Romney and his free-spending, deep-pocketed supporters.
The Romney-backing political action committee that spent millions pummeling Gingrich into submission in Iowa has already begun broadcasting ads in Florida, and the Romney campaign has mailed absentee ballots to supporters ahead of early voting in the state.
The two left standing by Iowa were Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, whose weaknesses as candidates nonetheless far exceed their strengths. Santorum's conversion from tortoise to hare in the final week of the Iowa race made him the story of the past 48 hours, building momentum that fed on itself and leaving him the most viable conservative facing the more moderate Romney.
That's a good place to be in a contest marked by the fitful attempts of a large majority of Republicans to find someone other than Romney to support.
But Santorum runs the strong risk of peaking in Iowa, the way Mike Huckabee, another favorite of social conservatives, did four years ago before losing the nomination to the more centrist John McCain.
Santorum has much going for him. Unlike second-tier candidates Gingrich and Perry, the former Pennsylvania senator is a strong debater and disciplined campaigner who honed his straight-talking pitch in nearly 400 face-to-face campaign appearances across Iowa.
But his irrelevance until recently has spared Santorum the scrutiny that proved the undoing of so many other candidates-of-the-moment. That will change quickly. Expect, for instance, much more discussion among conservatives about Santorum's 2004 endorsement of his fellow Pennsylvania senator, Arlen Specter (for political reasons, Santorum says), who was a pariah to many on the right even before quitting the GOP and becoming a Democrat.
More significantly, Santorum lacks the money and campaign organization that will be vital as the race moves from the confines of Iowa to much bigger and costlier states such as Florida.
As for Paul, it is nearly impossible to see the Republican Party nominating the Texas congressman, whose views on issues such as legalizing drugs and shrugging off a nuclear Iran are anathema to so many in the GOP.
"I don't think Ron Paul is viable as the nominee of our party. I don't think he's viable in South Carolina," said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist in that strongly pro-military state, which votes third, after New Hampshire, next week and has picked the Republican nominee in every presidential race since 1980.
"This is a national-security state," Dyke went on, "and Ron Paul's not a national-security candidate."
Paul seems destined to play the role Democrat Jesse Jackson did in 1988: sticking around to rally his fervently faithful supporters, create headaches for the eventual nominee and fight for a say at the convention and a voice in the rarely read party platform.
If anything, he could serve as a useful foil for Romney, making him appear more centrist, which would be a good thing for the general election against President Obama.
The nominating fight, of course, is far from over. Tuesday night was only the start, and beneath the numbers there were danger signals looking ahead to the general election, which Romney's opponents may use against him in the contests soon to come.
He fared poorly among independent voters -- who are vital to winning in November -- and nearly three in four of those who showed up at the polls Tuesday night voted for someone else. Despite having run twice in Iowa, Romney has never cracked the modest 25% ceiling.
Moreover, turnout was not terribly impressive overall, suggesting that for all the talk of rabid Republicans eager to oust the president, many couldn't be roused despite the fierce competition. That is likely to spur renewed talk of a late entry in the contest, swooping in to save the party from a Romney nomination.
Still, good enough was good enough for Romney as the race now heads to much more conducive terrain. He entered the night as the candidate to beat and woke up Wednesday morning in the same position, after a nail-biting finish.
That constitutes victory, whatever the vote totals say.