As if the GOP presidential race didn’t have enough strange twists and turns, yesterday Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Iowa state chair, Kent Sorenson, abruptly left the campaign and went over to the Ron Paul team. Bachmann accused him of boasting that he was offered a large sum of money to defect; the Paul campaign and Sorenson denied the accusation, although Sorenson has told the same story to others.
Sorenson says he did it because “I believe we have an opportunity to take Romney out here in Iowa, and I believe that person [to do it] is Ron Paul.” Like most of this story, that makes no sense. Either a first- or second-place finish in Iowa will send Romney on to New Hampshire with significant momentum. The only people to be “taken out” in Iowa are those at the back of the pack who finish behind Newt Gingrich and the surging Rick Santorum.
The move may hurt Bachmann (who hasn’t shown the progress in the polls or generated the buzz that Santorum has), confirming her campaign is in extremis. It may also ensnare Ron Paul, who (regardless of whether he enticed Sorenson with money) looks like a bit of a cad, raiding the staff of a struggling candidate who poses no risk to him. But the real impact, I suspect, will be two-fold.
First, it will confirm that Rick Santorum is the most viable not-Romney, not-Paul and not-Gingrich candidate. That’s bad news for Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It’s also potentially devastating for Gingrich. If Santorum consolidates the evangelical vote and passes Gingrich in the caucus results, the former House speaker’s descent will likely accelerate.
Second, that development, in turn, may make Ron Paul a more marginal candidate. Assuming that the Sorenson defection is one more factor hastening Santorum’s rise, Santorum, and not Ron Paul, will then become the principal not-Romney candidate. Voters who remain skeptical of, if not hostile to, Romney will have a viable alternative to him in Santorum, someone who’s not willing to let Iran get the bomb and doesn’t think we brought 9/11 on ourselves. In essence, Ron Paul, as far as mainstream conservative Republicans are concerned, in South Carolina and primary-holding states thereafter, can return to his fringe status. He would not be the only one standing between Romney and the nomination.
Now, it is also quite possible that no caucus voters really care about the Sorenson-Paul-Bachmann soap opera. They’ll yawn and return to mulling over the choice they’ll make on Tuesday night. And meanwhile, Romney, evidencing sunny optimism, builds enthusiasm and continues his bus tour through Iowa.