Iowa culled the unwieldy herd of Republican presidential contenders but raised some new questions about what will happen next. To use the NCAA basketball tournament analogy, third-place finisher Ron Paul advances to the next round as winner of his own libertarian/isolationist bracket. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania wins the more conservative bracket, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney prevails in the more moderate mainstream bracket. The problem for Paul is that his bracket never really intersects with the other two. The Texan's rather exotic positions on issues attract a fervent niche but also limit his ability to expand. In short, Paul isn't particularly relevant to other candidates or to the shape of the race itself.
Santorum can now effectively consolidate the more ideological and stylistically bolder wing of the GOP, benefiting from the departure of Minnesota's Rep. Michele Bachmann and the marginalization of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, although Perry's refusal to quit complicates Santorum's job of consolidating conservative support within the party. Conservative Republicans have been seeking an effective messenger for their point of view. But each time they focused on one, closer examination revealed flaws that caused them to move on. Santorum, a former member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, once advocated earmarks. But he has few obvious flaws that can be exploited in a GOP nomination contest. (A general election is a different matter.)
How long will Newt Gingrich's money hold out? Attacks from Romney's super PAC made Gingrich livid. And now he has a major score to settle. Gingrich no longer has any chance of winning the nomination, though he can still be a real thorn in Romney's side. But how long will he have the resources to campaign in the style to which he has grown accustomed? The media point out the amount of money spent destroying Gingrich, but what they often omit is that for negative ads to be devastating, they need good material. Gingrich's opponents had an 18-wheeler filled with opposition research; why he didn't appear to see it coming or didn't think it would be effective is unclear.
Gingrich and Perry's poor fourth- and fifth-place showings put the two candidates out of money. Either could have theoretically mounted a major presidential campaign, with real money to fuel it along. Santorum has a team of talented advisers who have been with him since the beginning of his political career. But it is still a challenge for him to ramp up a presidential-level campaign this late in the game.
Conventional wisdom is that Romney has a ceiling of about 25 percent support and that Republicans are resisting him for a variety of reasons. These include his malleability on certain issues, such as his Massachusetts health care plan, and in some cases his Mormon faith. There is no doubt some truth to that. But there is an alternative explanation, one that also explains why former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty didn't get traction and dropped out after the Iowa straw poll and why former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has failed to catch on: A majority of Republicans want someone bolder and more confrontational than the longtime GOP establishment has offered up.
The truth is that polling does not show that Romney's negatives are particularly high. The conservatives and evangelicals who have supported the other candidates were expressing a preference for the bolder and zestier brand of conservatism.
The $64,000 question is whether they will settle for anything less-whether it is just a preference or if it is a deal-breaker. Will voters insist on someone more strident than a button-down, corporate-style Republican? At this point, I think Republicans are unified by their opposition to President Obama and fervent desire to defeat him. They have preferences about how to beat him, but the ultimate goal is to evict him from the White House.
This is where Gingrich comes into play. His idea about a new way to run for president clearly flopped. The three candidates who did well included two who ran four years ago; they built on traditional campaign organizations that were half a decade old. The third did it through hard work and shoe leather. (Santorum may well have saved the future of the Iowa caucuses; the prospects for the Ames straw poll may be very different.) Gingrich's new way didn't work, and he clearly underestimated his own baggage. But he is a superb debater, and this is where he can do a lot of damage to Romney. He can try to make him unacceptable, effectively tipping the nomination to either Santorum or some late entry into the race.
Would a scorched-earth campaign against Romney work before he can nail down the nomination? My guess is it wouldn't, but that is what to watch for. Since the beginning, I have stressed the fundamentals. We know what real presidential campaigns look like. Think back to the Obama and Clinton campaigns four years ago. Think back to the campaigns of past Republican and Democratic nominees. Can someone replicate those kinds of campaigns this late in the process, without going back to the era of Jimmy Carter when everything was much smaller, cheaper, and less sophisticated? Money, organization, planning, infrastructure, and expertise still matter. Just look at the problems many of the campaigns had with the most basic task of getting on the ballot. Real campaigns don't have problems getting on the ballot.
Santorum has some smart guys around him, but can they perform a miracle on this timetable? Mark me down as skeptical. But given the kind of year we've just had, it's worth watching.