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Caucus Cliffhanger Produces Drama But No Clarity

Caucus Cliffhanger Produces Drama But No Clarity

By Tom Bevan - January 4, 2012


DES MOINES -- In a Republican presidential primary contest that has been characterized by chaos and uncertainty, it is fitting that the first actual voting here in Iowa featured a dramatic come-from-behind surge, a cliffhanger that left the election in doubt until the wee hours of the morning, and a muddled story line that failed to produce a clear-cut winner.

As the last caucus votes were tallied across the state early Wednesday morning, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were locked in a virtual two-way tie for first place, separated by just eight votes. The final tally: Romney eked out the win, 30,015-30,007. Neither could crack the 25 percent level of support.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished a close third with 21 percent of the vote, while former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who held a double-digit lead in the polls just three weeks ago, finished a distant fourth place with 13 percent of the vote. Other clear losers included Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who mustered just 10 percent support to finish in fifth place, despite outspending his rivals, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose 6 percent showing in her home state almost certainly crippled her candidacy.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who did not participate in the Iowa campaign, finished last with less than 1 percent of the vote.

The result represents a stunning turnaround for Santorum, who as recently as 10 days ago was mired in sixth place with less than 8 percent in the polls. Santorum was the poorest financed of the candidates, but almost certainly the hardest working. He made a show of visiting all 99 counties in Iowa, making some 381 speeches or town hall meetings. The determination of Iowa’s conservatives to reward Santorum’s effort instantly vaults him into the top tier of candidates as the race moves on to New Hampshire, which will conduct the nation’s first primary vote next Tuesday.

Santorum’s last-minute push gave him momentum heading into the caucuses and also helped him avoid the kind of intense scrutiny endured by other, now former front-running candidates. Santorum’s strong finish in Iowa assures he will receive that scrutiny as the race enters the next phase, with six debates and three key primaries to be held over the next four weeks.

For Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, Tuesday night’s outcome in Iowa is mixed. Both men met expectations but didn’t exceed them. Romney did not land the knockout blow his campaign had hoped for; instead he won almost exactly the same number of votes as he did four years ago but emerged with a much better result thanks to a more fractured field. Paul managed to more than double his vote totals from 2008, but did not score the break-out win he needed to push his campaign to the next level.

The remaining candidates suffered disappointing finishes that will force them to re-evaluate their campaigns. Despite finishing a distant fourth, Newt Gingrich appeared to relish the idea of waging an attack against Mitt Romney in the coming days. “We’re not going to run nasty 30-second ads,” Gingrich told his supporters Tuesday night, “but I reserve the right to tell the truth.”

Gingrich is launching his assault with a full-page ad Wednesday in the New Hampshire Union Leader comparing his record to Romney’s.

Rick Perry had originally planned to head directly to South Carolina on Wednesday to campaign, but after winning just 10 percent of the vote, he surprised everyone on Tuesday night by telling his supporters he would head back to Texas to “assess” the results from Iowa -- a clear sign that he is considering dropping out of the race.

Michele Bachmann’s dismal sixth place finish immediately prompted questions about her viability moving forward. Asked whether Bachmann would drop out of the race, campaign manager Keith Nahigian initially told The Associated Press, "I don't know yet," before subsequently telling reporters the campaign was off to South Carolina, “full steam ahead.”

But the line of the night -- and the night itself -- belonged to Santorum, who yelled, “Game on!” as he appeared before a throng of cheering supporters to celebrate his unlikely showing.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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