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Who Are The Real GOP Radicals In Iowa?

RED OAK, IOWA -- Outside a candidate's event in Council Bluffs, as the wind was blowing in bitter cold from Nebraska, I witnessed my first ugly moment of the Iowa caucuses. A 19-year-old local man, Steve Bertelson, was standing outside on the sidewalk, shivering visibly, silently holding a sign with a scrawled slogan about the 1 percent. As people left the event, several turned on him, shouting angrily just steps away from him as he absorbed the abuse without saying anything. Why didn't he go across the river to Omaha and bother Warren Buffett instead, shouted one man. Better yet, hollered another, Bertelson should go bother George Soros. Had he heard of him? "Soros! S-O-R-O-S!"

Which arch-conservative candidate was drawing such a crowd? Rick Santorum? Ron Paul? Rick Perry? Michele Bachmann? Nope, nope, nope, nope. It was the moderate, Mitt Romney. The moment hinted at what strikes me as a common misconception in the national coverage of the primaries. In Frank Rich's latest column for New York magazine, he warns of the unreconcilable extremism of the 75 percent of Republican voters who are not yet ready to fall in line behind Romney. No doubt, there's an element of truth to this generalization -- what remains of the old-line, moderate Republican establishment has by and large fallen in line behind Romney. But out here in Iowa, the picture looks more complicated. Plenty of Republican voters who are unsure about Romney feel that way not necessarily because he is insufficiently wild-eyed for their tastes, but also because he simply rubs them the wrong way, is hard to relate to or seems less than entirely sincere. And those who are supporting Romney are not necessarily milquetoast moderates who like him for his presumed technocratic competence -- plenty of them are the really hard-core partisans who prefer him because they see him as the most likely to ground Barack Hussein Obama into the dust, like the older lady from Sioux City I quoted earlier, who calls Obama "frightening."

Looking at the choice this way perhaps helps explain the late Santorum wave. Santorum may possess the full culture-warrior outlook, as I described in a recent dispatch, but he is is not exactly breathing fire on the trail. What is striking about his campaign persona, in fact, is how humdrum he is. Not charismatic, exactly -- he reacts to voters' praise and encouragement with a mild nod or swallowed thank you, without any of Mike Huckabee's bonhomie. But he is, for an ideologue with a problematic internet trail, surprisingly normal in his affect. Unlike Romney and even the nouveau-riche Perry in his fancy suits, Santorum comes across as distinctly middle-class, with the hint of a duck-tail tuft of hair at the nape of his neck, a slightly lumbering walk and, above all, those sweater vests. He arrives at events in the same Dodge Ram he's been driving around Iowa for weeks, while Romney and now even Paul zip around in private jets. For those in the know, there is the added fact of Santorum's young daughter's disability. "I've been telling people for a long time that Santorum's going to be the surprise in this race," said Marlys Popma, a longtime leader of the anti-abortion movement in Iowa who stayed uncommitted this race. "He's been in people's living rooms, he's taken the process seriously." Standing in contrast is Romney, with his five flawless sons and 16 grandkids, and his wife Ann, whose way of humanizing him is to declare, as she did in Council Bluffs, that he is pretty much perfect: "I can promise you that his character is exemplary that the's always done the right thing in his life, in every respect." Well, isn't that nice.

Which is how you end up with Santorum supporters like Pamela and Brett Dougherty, whom I met at his event in Marshalltown. By the standards of the pollsters and punditocracy, they would qualify as arch-conservatives -- adamantly anti-abortion, and in Brett's case, borderline libertarian on other issues. But they offered a far more deliberative take on their choice than the curt "Obama's gotta go" responses one tends to get from Romney supporters." Pamela Dougherty, a nurse at a dialysis center, said she liked Santorum because "he seems pretty genuine. I like him because my morals fit closely with his. America is a country in decline; there's no place left for morality. This is the first year I feel a giant need to do what I'm doing" by getting involved in the caucus. As for Romney, she said, "he waffles," on abortion and other issues. They agree with Santorum and Romney that the country is edging toward a European-style welfare state under Obama, but find Santorum's moral argument -- that the welfare state undermines the family and erodes self-reliance -- more credible than Romney's business-minded objection.

For them, Romney's business success holds no particular appeal; whereas at Romney events, one finds people who positively glory in his outsized riches from Bain Capital -- not despite the fact that it involved shrinking companies along the way but because of it. "That's the way America lives," said Ken Schatz, a lawyer at Romney's Sioux City event, whose daughter and son both work in finance. "If it wasn't for the private sector doing its thing, they wouldn't have a job. Yeah, it's bad [laying people off], but it also makes jobs for the future."

Just some things to keep in mind as the spinmeisters and scorekeepers warm up their vocal chords for tomorrow night.