A week ago I wrote about 10 factors to watch in Iowa. Although the first of these, the Des Moines Register poll, will not be revealed until the weekend, the other nine do tell us about the direction of the race.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has not endorsed, which is one of many disappointing bits of bad news for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is one of his closet allies in the House. He’s been saying some nice things about Rick Santorum. (“I think he’s built the best face-to-face, hand-to-hand personal network in the state, and we’ll see if Iowans reward him for that. I expect they will.”) And he’s been highly critical on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) (“I don’t think that the Paul supporters have really stepped back and thought about what would happen if Ron Paul were operating out of the Oval Office and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.”) He’s also said he wouldn’t lose sleep over a Mitt Romney nomination. That sounds more like a political analyst than someone getting ready to endorse a contender.
The anti-Ron Paul drumbeat has continued with more focus on his racist newsletters from the 1980s and 1990s. Polling shows he has kept his core group of supporters, but he’s also hit his ceiling, it seems, in the low 20s. For those voters who went from Bachmann to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Paul, however, the final stop on the not-Romney tour may be Santorum. He’s shown this week both the power of his organization and the limits of his appeal.
Gingrich hasn’t had many verbal clunkers in the last week, but his failure to make the Virginia ballot and the cancellation of half his campaign stops in Iowa suggest Newtmentum is all in reverse. No matter how he tries to reset expectations, a poor showing is likely to finish off his candidacy.
Gov. Terry Branstad (R-Iowa) has been relatively mum of late, which may reflect some confidence on his part that the feared “Wacky Iowa chooses Ron Paul” headlines will be replaced by “Iowans make Santorum’s day.” He’s certainly not going to disrupt Romney’s ascent or Santorum’s progress.
The Santorum surge is perhaps the biggest development in the last week. It’s real and it will cause grief for those who finish behind him on caucus night. As he climbs in the polls, more of the evangelical vote is likely to flow his way. In short, he’s become the Mike Huckabee of 2012, the underdog who can excel in Iowa. Few expect him to actually win, but it’s at least conceivable that he could finish as high as second. A finish in third or better ensures a spate of good press and the potential to improve his standing in New Hampshire.
The Romney bus tour and Romney’s reemergence as the front-runner (in some polls) are the other big developments in the last week. He’s confident and drawing big crowds. Ann Romney has been a hit on the trail, helping him to maximize women’s votes (part of the electorate with whom he was doing well for some time). A win still is less likely than second place, given the Paulites’ organizational strength, but given Romney’s solid lead in New Hampshire a second-place finish in Iowa would still be greeted by his team with relief.
Paul’s air war is still firing, but as all candidates have moved in state for their final push, retail politics and earned media have taken center stage. That helps the confident, surging candidates (Romney and Santorum) and hurts the struggling ones.
Finally, Bachmann’s bus tour hit the skids when her Iowa state chair jumped ship. She and Santorum have been competing (along with Perry) for the same bloc of social conservative voters. He’s clearly caught fire with that segment of the electorate. That is bad news for Bachmann.
Since last week, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann have caught no breaks. Expect them to finish out of the top three. While one or more may stick around for South Carolina they will likely not seriously contend for the nomination after Tuesday.
Romney and Santorum are hitting their stride. And Paul continues to hold onto his base, with a organization that could very well overperform on caucus night. These three will, in all likelihood, fill the top slots. In what order? Anyone’s guess.