Mitt Romney ran up big margins in the most urban areas of Iowa, Des Moines… (Los Angeles Times )
Before Tuesday's Iowa Republican caucuses, predictions were that the top three finishers would be clumped together. So it proved, and the race stands essentially where it did before the balloting: Mitt Romney remains the candidate to beat, but he continues to encounter skepticism from conservatives; Rick Santorum is emerging from the ranks of alternatives to Romney; and Ron Paul commands an intense loyalty but is almost certainly too unconventional (to put it mildly) to win the nomination. Tuesday's clear loser: Newt Gingrich, the latest object of conservative flirtation to rise and then fall from favor with stunning speed.
Each of the successful candidates had his strengths: Romney benefited from his business background, supposedly superior electability in November and a barrage of negative advertising directed at Gingrich. Paul rallied on young people attracted either by his libertarian economics or his isolationist foreign policy (or, perhaps, by his support for legalizing marijuana). And Santorum, once the longest of long shots, owes his success to dogged retail campaigning and the ability to broaden his message beyond abortion. The former senator from Pennsylvania also managed the feat of pointing to his experience in Congress while portraying himself as a conviction conservative who would shake up the Washington establishment. Clearly Santorum's rivals — and the media — underestimated him.
Santorum's showing means that he will be under increased scrutiny from his opponents and the news media. He may lack the necessary staying power. But even if he doesn't consolidate his position as the anti-Romney, he has postponed the anointment of the former Massachusetts governor. That's a reassuring thought for those who would like to see the Republican race continue and not be aborted after Iowa and next week's New Hampshire primary. A smaller field may help produce a more meaningful debate, where a rush to Romney would squelch it.
Before Tuesday's caucuses, skeptics were dismissive of the importance of Iowa: It was too white, too rural and too evangelical to serve as a microcosm of the nation or even the party, and thus unfit to exercise the influence conveyed by the first contest of the year. Those demographics certainly helped Santorum, and Romney's ability to overcome them testifies to his strength. But campaigns have to start somewhere, and Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are more reflective of the GOP electorate than those in many other states.
Nor, of course, is it the last word. After New Hampshire come primaries in South Carolina and Florida. Together the four states constitute a sort of national primary. If Romney finishes first or second in most or all of them, he will be close to the status of presumptive nominee. If not, the race will go on. And that's a good thing.