Santorum leaves Iowa carrying momentum

Freedom New Mexico

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation voting did what it was supposed to do for the Republican presidential primary: narrow the field and create front-runners for the nomination.

Even though he finished in second place, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, was the big story of the evening and heading into the first state primaries this month. What the Iowa Caucuses also illustrated is that Mitt Romney, who finished first by eight votes over Santorum, has yet to break through and establish a wider base of GOP support. Both men won 25 percent of the votes.

Rep. Ron Paul finished third, with 21 percent of the vote.

The outcome could be viewed as a tie, or even a stalemate, between the former Pennsylvania senator and former Massachusetts governor, which bodes well for the Santorum camp while further emphasizing general dissatisfaction among most Republican voters, particularly social conservatives, for Romney’s candidacy.

Santorum’s campaign had banked on his performance in Iowa, a winning strategy in 2008 for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose victory propelled him to temporary front-runner status (and later landed him his own show on the Fox News Channel).

Santorum, whose predicament is similar to Huckabee’s in 2008, is perhaps better off. His substantial showing in Iowa has raised his national profile and campaign fundraising efforts while Romney has still yet to find a way to appeal to a majority, or even a consistent plurality, of Republicans nationwide.

It is almost a forgone conclusion that Romney will win New Hampshire next week, but the real tests for the Romney campaign will come Jan. 21 in South Carolina and in Florida on Jan. 31. Most recent polls in both states show Romney trailing Newt Gingrich, but those polls predate Santorum’s performance in Iowa.

Her fifth-place finish in Iowa led Rep. Michelle Bachmann to suspend her candidacy and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to “reassess” his candidacy, though he said he will stay in the race to the next round of primaries. Bachmann, Perry and Santorum had competed for the same social-conservative vote in Iowa, which Santorum overwhelming won. With Bachmann’s exit and the prospect of Perry dropping out within a month, Santorum should gain supporters from both candidates, especially if the two endorse him.

Even though Romney won in Iowa, the caucuses results and national polling data illustrate that there remains an ample portion of the Republican electorate still clinging to an anybody-but-Romney attitude. He may be able to win the GOP nomination without such voters, but it would be difficult to win the general election without an excited, unified Republican base, something that hurt John McCain in 2008. Sen. McCain was not a candidate who excited the Republican base, he won the primary by attrition – not enthusiasm – something Romney may well duplicate.

The nomination race, though, is far from over with Mr. Gingrich in contention, Paul holding steady, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who bypassed Iowa in favor of focusing on New Hampshire, waiting for a chance at the spotlight and for a surge of support. For now, though, as Santorum told his Iowa supporters after the vote, “Game on.”