Johnston, Iowa -- The voters gathered at the middle school here in this well-off Des Moines suburb were an ambivalent lot, many still undecided as _they stood in line to register for the caucus. I chose this precinct because it split four years ago between Mike Huckabee (127 votes) and Mitt Romney (102 votes), with John McCain and Fred Thompson each drawing another 60 or so votes. So if this was to be a good night for Romney, precincts like this one ought to be fertile territory.
That turned out to be true. In the end, Romney won with 117 votes, to 86 for Rick Santorum and 59 for Ron Paul. Rick Perry picked up 46 votes and Newt Gingrich 44. But Romney’s commanding victory masked a marked lack of enthusiasm.
Rather, interviewing caucus goers beforehand, I found a surprising combination of grudging resignation and outright hostility toward the former Massachusetts governor. Some voters said they liked Newt Gingrich, but, echoing the language of the attack ads that have blanketed the airways here, were concerned about the “baggage” he carries. Even more said they would prefer Rick Santorum. Those who were Romney backers used words like “electable “ and “most likely to win.”
Standing in line before the voting, Vicki Palmer, 45, was wavering between Santorum and Gingrich. “I like Santorum, but I’m not confident he can beat Obama,” she said, agonizing over whether to “stand for what I really believe in or compromise.” As for Romney, she said, “it’s nice his son came” -- Romney’s youngest was working the crowd -- “but I don’t trust him. Too wishy washy.
“I think he’s the most likely to win,” said Krista Ginsberg, 39, who was leaning Romney even though, she said, her “heart” was with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and she worried that Romney is “kind of middle-of-the-road.” Still, she said, “I want a change [from President Obama] and I want it bad.”
Romney “has less negatives in my opinion than all the others,” said Jerry Gay, 70, a retired schoolteacher. “I really wish I was enthusiastic about one or the other, to be honest with you,” said Stephen Barnett, 59, who works for the American Red Cross. “By this time normally I would have had my decision made a long time ago.”
Barnett had not committed to Romney, he said, because “I just wonder if there would be sufficient change for me with Romney.” At the same time, he said, Romney “would have the best shot against Obama and is the most electable of the group.”
As I write, the statewide results are looking closer than in Johnston. But however it ends up for Romney, the enthusiasm deficit I heard here ought to be worrying to his advisers, even if they end up with reason to celebrate.