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The Verdict That Wasn't

The Verdict That Wasn't

By David Shribman - January 6, 2012

Iowa settled nothing. What happened last night on the plains and in the countless small farm communities and small towns of America's great crossroads state -- the place, in pioneer days as in our modern political calendar, that Americans traversed on their way to someplace else -- was not an act of futility, but it wasn't one of finality either.

In the freezing temperatures of early January, Iowa did what it almost always does. In a year when the Republicans alone hold contested caucuses, with a right-leaning politics that doesn't reflect the rest of the party or country, Iowa didn't answer questions; it posed them. It didn't respond to important unknowns, it raised them.

Iowa didn't resolve things when it presented victories to candidates like Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992 or former Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, who had strength but not stamina, and soon vanished. It didn't bring things to a conclusion when it sent plausible nominees like Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Sen. Robert J. Dole in 1988 onto New Hampshire, where they all lost.

It didn't do much when it elevated Sen. Paul Simon and the Rev. Pat Robertson, whose strong second-place showings in 1988 infused them with confidence if not long-term political credibility. It didn't even settle things when it gave early triumphs to eventual nominees Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008, both of whom required months more of struggle to capture their nominations.

So what did all of those negative ads, those endless afternoons of coffee shop and legion hall encounters, those cloying appeals to Iowa ego, accomplish?

They were not wasted, except for maybe the Iowa chauvinism, which over the years has given us subsidies for ethanol, which expired over the weekend, and a national focus on an electorate that is more conservative, more white and more educated than the country at large. Because now we can adjust our focus and, in New Hampshire next Tuesday and beyond, examine these questions:

Just how strong is Mitt Romney anyway?

The former Massachusetts governor got about a quarter of the vote, which is what he has been polling for months -- and what he captured four years ago in a losing effort. That quarter slice was enough, in a deeply split field, to allow him to put on a brave face last night, but it was far from the decisive verdict he hoped to win. He and his Republican-establishment supporters have to worry that a candidate who has the experience of an earlier presidential campaign and massive financial advantages seems stuck at about a quarter of the vote of his own party.

Now Romney moves into friendlier territory in New Hampshire, where nearly every Massachusetts presidential candidate running in an open contest has prevailed since the 1960s. On paper, Romney now has to be considered the favorite, even a strong favorite. And if Romney prevails next Tuesday, Iowa could be but a distant memory and he could be hard to stop.

Just how enduring is Rick Santorum?

He has won a triumphant pass into the next round, New Hampshire, and perhaps into the one after that, South Carolina, where his enhanced position makes him a formidable contender among the religious conservatives who are such a visible part of the state's Republican scene. But the Palmetto State hasn't rolled over for social conservatives: Huckabee was upended there by Sen. John McCain four years ago, and the Rev. Robertson did not prevail against Vice President Bush in 1988.

Santorum has spunk, spirit and, now, serious political bona fides. His is one of the more remarkable political stories of recent times -- with a stunning presidential-caucus performance in Iowa more than five years after losing his Senate re-election bid in Pennsylvania by 18 percentage points.

Right now his campaign is cloaked in romance and stardust. But he lacks money and organization, which are more prosaic but often more powerful in presidential politics. Besides, he may be susceptible to the forces that elevated five other non-Romney contenders to the fore only to see them all falter under greater scrutiny and formidable negative attacks from others, including forces associated with Romney.

Until now, Santorum has been regarded as an innocuous, well-meaning afterthought in a V-neck sweater. That status ended last night, and the barrage against him almost certainly will begin this morning.

Just how powerful a force is Ron Paul?

Paul is today what he was yesterday, a candidate with a loyal cadre of supporters but almost no chance of substantially expanding his coalition. It is true that the physics of the issues have moved in Paul's direction; he no longer is the lone voice in expressing skepticism of the Federal Reserve Bank and rethinking America's far-flung international involvements.

But his association with supporters who have fringe ideas with odious overtones limits his ability to reach moderates and undecided voters whom Republicans know they will need to prevail against Obama in November. In entrance polls last night, they showed they want to choose a winner, not only someone whose ideas they consider winning.

The danger to the Republicans is not in Paul's resilience and determination to remain in the GOP field after New Hampshire and South Carolina; it's in the possibility that results like last night's might embolden him to bolt the party and undertake a third-party candidacy that could siphon off support from the eventual Republican nominee.

What about Newt Gingrich?

He was the great phenomenon of December but in the new year went from presidential timber to political tinder and from first place to fourth in Iowa. He remains the great idea machine of the Republican Party and, unlike Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry, very likely will continue to be a factor in the campaign, perhaps with a comeback, but almost certainly with the sort of debate performances that define the Republican conversation going forward.

He didn't flounder because of a bad Iowa performance. He had a bad Iowa performance because he floundered. In that regard, the candidate of big ideas is proof of the big truth emerging from last night:

Iowa didn't matter. It only clarified what does matter. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com)

Copyright 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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