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01.03.12

After Iowa, Can Mitt Romney Regain the Momentum?

Rick Santorum parlayed a late Iowa surge into a neck-and-neck finish with Mitt Romney. John Avlon on how the next primaries—New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida—play to the candidates’ strengths.

Santorum and Romney. David and Goliath. Behind the virtual tie in Iowa—technically an eight-vote win for Romney—was a moral victory for Rick Santorum, surging from the back of the back despite being dramatically outspent by Mitt Romney.

Now Iowa is over. New Hampshire is next. The grueling January primary gauntlet is in full force, ending with Florida at the end of the month.

Rick Perry announced he is retreating to Texas for a time of “reassessment,” code for closing time in his campaign. Michele Bachmann might not be willing to admit it yet, but her campaign is also dead—roundly rejected in a caucus dominated by conservative populists. The miracle Bachmann predicted turned out to be just prayer: Tuesday night she got just over the total number of votes she received at the Ames straw poll.

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The most ominous sign for the GOP might be the low turnout in Iowa after the Tea Party–driven enthusiasms of 2010. Roughly 123,000 of 640,000 registered Republicans in the state turned out to vote, along the lines of 2008, when dueling Democrats absorbed most of the electoral energy.

The biggest news was the biggest upset: Rick Santorum playing the role of Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucus, gaining late-breaking support from social conservatives and widespread desire for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

Year to year, Romney actually lost ground on the Iowa map, losing western counties he carried in 2008. He remains the only man in politics with a glass ceiling of 25 percent. Polls—and the candidate—were predicting a significant Mitt win. Instead he emerges from Iowa technically victorious but still unloved, looking for a decisive victory in his home-state neighbor of New Hampshire. The good news for the establishment candidate is that he is likely to be the first person to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, albeit with an asterisk.

Ron Paul won most-improved award, rising from 10 percent of the vote to roughly 20 percent, carrying many of the college-dominated counties and providing the most enthusiasm. He will ride into the Live Free or Die state with wind in his sails, but without a win under his belt. Still, he is regarded as something of a prophet by his hard-core supporters, and his campaign will continue undaunted.

Here’s the thing—New Hampshire represents the opposite side of the Republican political spectrum. Iowa is a caucus disproportionately dominated by conservatives. In contrast, New Hampshire is an open primary state, meaning that independent voters can participate, and they make up 42 percent of the local electorate. By any measure, the New Hampshire primary is a better gauge of the general electorate than the Iowa caucuses. Romney has a big built-in advantage and longtime double-digit lead in the polls. Only one statewide elected official from Massachusetts has failed to win the New Hampshire primary, and that’s Romney in 2008.

Jon Huntsman has staked his center-right campaign on a win in New Hampshire, and with Romney emerging strong if not victorious from Iowa, that looks less likely. Newt Gingrich has the Manchester Union Leader endorsement, but it will be interesting to see how much he chooses to fight in New Hampshire or whether he will decamp to South Carolina to prop up his one-time lead there. After being subjected to millions of dollars of negative ads from a Romney-related PAC, Gingrich is pissed—and this time it’s personal. He’ll be approaching this Saturday’s debate like a scene from Raging Bull.

Establishment Republicans will be spinning that Santorum’s surge in Iowa is nontransferable to other states, given his lack of money and organization. But the man deserves credit for focusing on one resonant message that has been virtually ignored by other candidates—the struggling middle class and forgotten blue-collar workers, speaking to their concerns and proposing plans like an elimination of the corporate income tax on manufacturing companies.

South Carolina’s primary is Jan. 21. The Palmetto State is conservative and will be the place most likely to have Santorum or Gingrich pull out a win on the way to Florida, despite a changing demographic that belies Southern stereotypes. Romney will parade Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement on the road from New Hampshire, but a potential kingmaker such as Sen. Jim DeMint could hold more sway if he chooses to endorse. The Sunshine State votes Jan. 31 and will likely function as the traditional tiebreaker between social conservatives and the center right. The novelty of election night may have worn off by then, but that election matters more in real terms than the Iowa caucuses.

There is an additional factor to consider. Most primary states before April are allocating their delegates proportionately—and it will take 1,143 delegates to win the nomination. Someone like Paul will have little incentive to give up early. And if one candidate can coalesce the 75 percent of Republican primary voters who want someone other than Romney to be the nominee, things could get interesting down the stretch. If the Tea Party rallied around one candidate, it could be a decisive X factor. If not, a fractured far right is the best thing that could happen to Romney’s quest for the White House.

Make no mistake—Romney has the best organization and biggest war chest to confront an extended primary campaign. He has shown a willingness, if not eagerness, to go negative on his fellow Republicans when they threaten his status as the presumptive frontrunner. So much for Reagan’s 11th Commandment. Take a look for it in the trash.

On the inspiring side, the eight-vote margin Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucus with is the latest reminder that every vote counts. In our democracy, decisions are made by people who show up.

By the end of the January gauntlet, the remaining Republican candidates will have seen a representative regional sample of their primary electorate. With proportional rules in effect, this race could continue for months, bloodying the candidates and benefiting no one so much as that vulnerable incumbent, President Obama.