As of this writing, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are very nearly tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses, and Ron Paul is close enough to make it a functional three-way tie. But no matter who eventually “wins,” Mitt Romney has already won in terms of Iowa’s impact on the overall nominating process.
That’s the case no matter what tomorrow’s spin on the Caucus results suggests, for the simple reason that Paul cannot win the nomination, and Santorum is a very long shot. The candidate with the resources and positioning to challenge Romney in later states, Rick Perry, is finishing a fatal fifth in Iowa, behind Newt Gingrich, whose reservoir of support in the South will likely dissipate once the negative attack ads on his conservative credentials that destroyed his lead in Iowa spread elsewhere.
In some respects, a Paul or Santorum “victory” in Iowa would almost be better for Romney than an outright Mitt win. Paul’s strong performance will generate endless, fatuous hype about the strength of his revolutionary ground troops, and his alleged appeal to independents, Democrats, “moderates” and young people. Entrance polls from Iowa showing his strength in these demographic categories will gain attention. But that only creates an easy illusion for Romney to shatter in states with less unusual primary electorates. Combined with the nuclear attack Paul will soon face over his foreign policy views and his history of association with racists and other beyond-the-pale extremists, whatever buzz a strong Iowa showing creates will simply detract attention from candidates who have an actual prayer of beating Romney.
Santorum is theoretically someone who could inherit the strong anti-Romney vote in the GOP. But he’s not very well-equipped to do so. Having spent virtually all his time in Iowa, he has no organization elsewhere, and whatever money he can raise on the basis of winning, placing or showing in that state will be dwarfed by Romney’s resources. And despite his apparent victory in the “true conservative” subprimary, he has little natural appeal in the southern states where any challenge to Romney must emerge and thrive. For all his success with Iowa evangelicals, he’s a Catholic, with none of the One-of-Us pull in South Carolina and Florida that 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee had. And as recent diatribes by RedState proprietor and southern conservative opinion-leader Erick Erickson showed, Santorum’s record as a longtime congressional insider and supporter of “Big Government Conservatism” is going to be a real problem for him when the campaign goes South.
It’s an open question as to whether Gingrich or Perry can survive their terrible showings in Iowa, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be raising much money or getting much earned media. And neither showed during the final crucible in Iowa that they can overcome the handicaps that destroyed their once-formidable candidacies. In particular, Perry threw his money and time into a last-gasp effort to resuscitate his candidacy, and succeeded only in beating the doomed Michele Bachmann. To call him the Fred Thompson of 2012 is an insult to the Tennessean.
Once Mitt Romney wins in New Hampshire over an overrated Ron Paul and an overmatched Rick Santorum, the anybody-but-Romney forces in the GOP will likely begin to slink back into his camp, some because they sincerely prefer Mitt to his remaining rivals, and some because his nomination is finally, truly becoming inevitable. If Gingrich or (less likely) Perry can somehow build a southern redoubt, it will only take votes away from the other flailing anti-Romney prospects. And the final conservative surrender could come earlier: say, with an endorsement of Mitt by Jim DeMint in South Carolina or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in Florida.
Romney’s likely nomination is nearly as unlikely as John McCain’s four years ago. But as the Iowa results indicate, the conservatives who could have stymied him couldn’t find another Goldwater or Reagan, and couldn’t even convince Iowa’s savvy caucus-goers to unite on an alternative. The fact that all three “tickets out of Iowa” ultimately belonged to Mitt is a sign that the GOP’s ascendant hyper-conservative wing has lost altitude and will likely find itself anxiously supporting a nominee it does not want or trust.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.