As a political junkie how can you not love the Iowa Caucus?
Last summer when it all started, Iowa native Michele Bachmann was riding high as the winner of the Iowa straw poll. Today she is out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, a victim of a sixth place showing last night when 122,000 Iowans bundled up and went out in the cold to thin the field. This is Iowa after all, winnowing the field goes on a lot in these parts.
So, at the danger of participating in the morning after “everything has been said” department, here goes with a few observations on the Iowa process.
1. Mitt Romney won and is still likely to be the ultimate Republican standard bearer. Not much in the way of bragging rights attach to an eight vote win over a guy who was last heard of as the 18% loser in his own U.S. Senate re-election, but a win is a win. Watch for the GOP establishment to try hard to make sure he doesn’t stumble in the next two weeks.
2. While the mainstream press was watching the breathless rise and ultimate free fall of Newt Gingrich, a serious observer of politics, The Nation’s deadline poet Calvin Trillin, was forecasting Rick Santorum’s minutes of fame. It seems inevitable given the serial nature of the GOP front runners this time, that the ex-Pennsylvania Senator would get his moment. It has arrived. What will he do with it?
3. At his core Santorum is a social issue conservative. Catholic, profoundly pro-life and anti-gay rights he undoubtedly appeals to the social conservative wing of the GOP and that should help him in contests to come like South Carolina, but does it help him attract moderates and independents? Let the vetting begin. Santorum has been running below the radar screen of the national press for months. That ended today.
4. Mitt Romney’s super PAC supporters, with more than a little help from Newt, ended the Gingrich boom in Iowa, but the caucus results did not eliminate the snarling former Speaker of the House. Gingrich, not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but a fundamentally skillful and aggressive political gut puncher, is now going to do all he can to savage Romney who, it is clear, he detests. Gingrich is now like the injured elephant in the brush of New Hampshire; more dangerous when wounded. [One of the fascinating story lines from Romney’s now seven years of running for president is that his follow contestants really, really dislike him and Gingrich, with nothing to lose, will give the chattering classes all they crave over the next week. Red meat will be on the New Hampshire menu.]
5. Iowans are traditionally hospitable people, but Rick “Oops” Perry seemed to just get under their skin. Perry will go down in presidential history as the worst debater with the most money. Note to political junkies: study this campaign for all the clues you need for how not to do it. Perry turned out to be an awful candidate on the national stage and Iowa – remember Chris Dodd from four years ago – has a way of sending such folks home on a Southwest flight.
6. Ron Paul is in until the end. With money and a loyal following the cranky Texas congressman will take this all the way to the convention, a la Pat Buchanan in 1996. I can see the debates now over whether Paul gets a prime time slot to deliver a speech to the GOP convention. And, will he eventually endorse Romney? Why would he? I’m betting he won’t.
7. Iowa means nothing and everything. Four years ago, Barack Obama put himself on a rocky path to the Democratic nomination and eventually the White House with a win in Iowa. Mike Huckabee won on the GOP side four years ago and is now a Fox News talk show host. George H.W. Bush won in Iowa in 1980 and lost to Ronald Reagan. In fact, the only two eventual nominees to win in Iowa were Obama and George W. Bush. Even Jimmy Carter, who exploited the Iowa caucus for the first time in 1976, finished second to “uncommitted.” Iowa tells us who won’t be president – Bachmann and Perry for sure won’t be. Gingrich will need another Phoenix moment to come back and won’t get it. Jon Huntsman? Consult Calvin Trillin as to whether his New Hampshire moment has arrived. That leaves Mitt and Rick. Don’t bet against the one-time corporate turn around artist. Republicans aren’t crazy about him, but he’ll be the last man standing.