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Up Close For the Iowa Three-Way

JOHNSTON, IOWA -- When the final vote was tallied at the caucus precinct I was observing, at an evangelical church in the well-to-do outer exurbs of Polk County outside Des Moines, the woman who had spoken for Mitt Romney before the voting, Martha Fullerton, whispered under her breath to a fellow supporter: “We won by one vote.” She shrugged. “A win’s a win.”

But a short while later, as I was speaking with voters, a man rushed in. “Where do I vote?” he asked. Allen Stoye, a 40-year-old anesthesiologist, had been leaning toward Santorum because he wanted a “conservative”; because, as a doctor, he detested Obamacare and Romneycare; and because Romney personally reminded him of Al Gore in 2000 – “he says all the right things.” But he was busy with his young kids, he was new to the state, and wrongly thought he had until 9 p.m to vote. If he’d known better, he would have tied things up in the precinct, 97-97 (Ron Paul finished third with 62.) Stoye looked chagrined, but relieved when I explained that since the votes were counted in the aggregate statewide, it probably didn’t matter much that he had cost his candidate this one precinct.

Little did we know. As the night went on, it became clear that, in the absurdly small pool that is the Iowa caucus, and in this strange, strange GOP nominating season, a single vote was perhaps going to matter quite a lot after all. (There was another latecomer at my precinct—a 31-year-old first time caucus voter, a software developer and Paul supporter named Doug Wurth, who was also busy with a young kid, a newborn, and wrongly thought he had til 9. He was crushed to find out he was late. “He’s the most conservative, and he wants to bring our troops home.”)

More broadly, it became clear that Mitt Romney still has a big problem. Yes, he is leaving Iowa in better shape than he had last year, finishing in a knot with two challengers who presented little long-term threat, with no equivalent to John McCain waiting for him in New Hampshire. But still, the Hawkeye state had once again lain bare what Newt Gingrich would surely describe as his “fundamental” weakness. He collected no larger share of the vote than he had last time, even in a weaker field and with millions more spent on his behalf, and had been caught in the final days by a candidate with a tiny fraction of his resources, who had spent the whole campaign in the far shadows of the debate stage, who had lost his last election, in 2006, by 17 points.

I looked for Romney voters at my precinct to discuss this with, but they were hard to find. He had technically won the precinct, but his supporters, it appeared, had been those who had split for home as soon as the votes were cast, while others stayed on for other party business and to hear the results. Finally, I found a few. Bob Betz, 64, shrugged. “I voted for him because I think he’s electable,” said Betz, who voted for Fred Thompson in 2008. “I think Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room, but he’s not electable.” A few minutes later, I found another, Marsha Aldridge. She said she identified with Romney’s business experience because she’s a human relations executive for an insurance company. She finds him “genuine,” which she realizes is not the common perception. “To me, he’s genuine. His life and his family speaks for him being genuine. I like his polish. What people talk about being plastic is what people in the business world have that you don’t see much outside of it.” As for Fullerton, the woman who had spoken on Romney’s behalf—well, she had simply read the same talking points that I heard repeated by other Romney supporters on talk radio as I was driving away from the caucus, obviously scripted lines about how Romney had balanced the budget in Massachusetts, in a state with 85 percent Democrats, etc.

The Santorum supporters, on the other hand, spoke for their man with conviction and deliberation, if not with giddy enthusiasm. “It’s just the way he comes across,” said Steve Schmidt, a 51-year-old insurance agent who is not an evangelical Christian. “He’s an honest guy. He’s a politician but not a career politician. He has core values.” Why not Romney? “It’s just something about him,” he said. “He’s going to tell you want to hear, and then do what he wants to do.”

Somewhat oddly, with so many supporters in the precinct, the Santorum team chose as its speaker before the voting its Florida campaign chairman, Jesse Biter, the owner of a tech company in Sarasota who joined up with Santorum a few months ago after seeing him speak in Florida. He spoke persuasively on the candidate’s behalf, but acknowledged at the end of his remarks that he was from out of state. Afterward, he told me that Santorum was in far better shape in Florida than people realized. Biter had chairmen appointed in most counties, and was getting a rush of supporters jumping from the Perry and Cain campaigns. “We’re really getting that anti-Romney group,” he said. “My email in-box is exploding.”

Which suggests that that maybe, just maybe, the coronation of the 25 percent man is still a few weeks off. Or, at least, that Rick Santorum is going to make the acquaintance of the Restore Our Future Super-PAC very soon, and that it will make his treatment at the hands of mischievous Google elves look gentle by comparison.