Relief at Mitt Romney’s Iowa Headquarters

There was no music at Mitt’s victory party, and no dancing. Lloyd Grove on what passed for triumph inside Romney’s Iowa HQ.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

At the very moment that Rick Santorum was “publicly giv[ing] thanks to God” for his apparent victory in the Iowa caucuses, a cheer went up from the Hotel Fort Des Moines.

On the big screen in the teeming, airless second-floor ballroom, where Mitt Romney’s supporters waited cheek by jowl for their conquering hero late Tuesday night, Fox News—the Republican channel of choice—had just put up a graphic showing that the former Massachusetts governor was edging slightly ahead.

“Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” the crowd chanted.

The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

“On to New Hampshire and let’s get that job done!” the former leveraged-buyout mogul exhorted his followers when he finally took the stage to claim the brass ring with his wife, Ann—resplendent in a red jacket—and four of their five strapping sons. (The missing one, Ben, was doing his medical residency.) “Come visit us there. We’ve got some work ahead.”

Ann Romney, who’d introduced her husband of 42 years as “the next president of the United States,” is a more engaging—and far more spontaneous—public speaker than her spouse, who looked and sounded a tad robotic even on his night of triumph. She will be a formidable humanizing force in the battles to come—perhaps this campaign’s Tipper Gore.

The Romneyites had listened in respectful silence when Santorum’s often-emotional remarks were broadcast on the screen. They didn’t even take the bait when someone in Santorum’s audience shouted out “Romneycare!”—a derisive reference to the mandated health-insurance program Romney established in Massachusetts—and the former Pennsylvania senator interrupted his remarks to ask with a grin, “What did you say? Oh, Romneycare!”

But they responded with ear-splitting boos when, earlier in the night, Newt Gingrich took the stage to lash out angrily at Romney’s negative ads—“the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary,” the former speaker of the House complained—and ridicule their candidate as a “Massachusetts moderate who would be pretty good at managing the decay.”

And many in the crowd couldn’t resist giggling when Michele Bachmann, giving her own “victory” speech, lavished praise on her husband, Marcus, who—she recounted—“was out buying doggy sunglasses for our dog, Boomer” while she was busy campaigning.

The Romney supporters on hand—many of whom had come from Michigan and other places to volunteer and celebrate—seemed to take mostly quiet satisfaction in Tuesday’s result. There was no hugging, and certainly no dancing (maybe because there was no music), as their man racked up the big numbers.

Retired manufacturing executive John Tone, who was backing Romney for the second time around, having supported him in 2008, even thought Gingrich had a point with his complaint about all those attack ads.

“We’ve got to get rid of those 529 super PACS,” said the 73-year-old Tone, who showed up looking like he’d just come off a ski run (even though there are no ski runs in Iowa) wearing a red cable-knit sweater. Gingrich, he added, “is good. He’s great!”

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Tone described himself as a moderate Republican—of the sort Romney used to be—and favors abortion rights and doesn’t mind gay marriage, which became a searing controversy when the Iowa Supreme Court declared it legal.

“I think I voted mostly with my head,” Tone said.

In the end, Romney beat the former Pennsylvania senator by a mere eight votes out of more than 120,000 cast—the slimmest margin in the history of Republican nominating politics.

“We didn’t want to pay for a landslide,” Romney message guru Stuart Stevens told bleary-eyed reporters, repurposing the famous quip that John F. Kennedy made about his wealthy father, Joe, after the 1960 squeaker against Richard Nixon.

“I’m a happy man,” Stevens added. “I’m very relieved. Very relieved.”

It turns out that Stevens’s candidate had been ready with a freshened-up speech on his Iowa victory night, and a teleprompter had been set up so that Romney could deliver the new words with confidence. But then it was removed, and Romney ended up reverting to the standard stump speech he’d been repeating over and over in the past several days of campaigning.

“It was late,” Stevens explained. “We decided it was better to be more informal.”

Another consideration, of course, is that Santorum had banged on so long—well past midnight on East Coast television—that Romney would have wasted his shiny new rhetoric on a badly diminished audience.

Among the Romney supporters who’d flown in for the occasion was Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, who marveled at his candidate’s good fortune.

“He’s had a game plan all along to be our nominee,” Schock said, “and it didn’t include winning in Iowa.”