The candidates who many GOP strategists once believed might be able to give Romney a run — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — badly trailed the leaders. Romney advisers have been saying privately over the past few days that any outcome putting Gingrich and Perry in the lower half of the field would be ideal, no matter the order of finish among the top three.
But Romney’s lackluster percentage underscored the absence of enthusiasm among many Republicans for the candidate long seen as the party’s likeliest nominee. Despite being the nominal front-runner for the past year and judged overwhelmingly by Iowa Republicans as having the best chance of defeating President Obama in November, Romney did no better Tuesday than he did four years ago.
The results did little to damage Romney’s prospects of winning the nomination, though. He is well-funded, and he has a strong campaign team, a sharp focus on Obama and the economy, and a willingness to go after anyone he sees as a threat.
Gingrich and Perry both felt the power of his political machinery. Santorum, if he is judged to be a true threat, will soon feel it too, whether from Romney’s campaign directly or from the “super PAC” that is backing his candidacy and that poured millions into attacks against Gingrich.
Santorum’s showing in Iowa was impressive, but it is important to note that he managed to avoid being attacked by any of his rivals, which will not be the case going forward.
Romney will arrive in New Hampshire on Wednesday morning as the prohibitive favorite to win its primary next Tuesday. If he can come close to the margin he has enjoyed in the most recent polls there, he will have a clean victory. But because presidential candidates from Massachusetts are expected to do well in the Granite State, the value of a Romney victory would be limited.
Instead, the next real battleground will be South Carolina, whose Jan. 21 primary now shapes up as a major test for all the candidates, followed by Florida on Jan. 31. Romney did poorly in South Carolina four years ago and, in a state with a reputation for rough-and-tumble Republican politics, his rivals will be lying in wait for him.
Santorum can claim that he is the conservative alternative to Romney, given that his under-funded and hugely underestimated campaign surprised nearly everyone on Tuesday. He closed out his campaign in Iowa by asking voters to ignore the political pundits who said he had no chance and to do what Iowans have long done — be the first to tell the rest of the country what to think about presidential candidates.