Mitt Romney’s victory in Iowa is underappreciated. It was a well-run campaign and no one thought the day of the Ames straw poll, in August, that it would happen. The victory of Rick Santorum is a pundit-humbler: No one saw that coming even six weeks ago, except perhaps Mr. Santorum.
The Iowa results almost perfectly reflect the Republican Party, which, roughly speaking, is split into three parts—libertarians, social conservatives and moderate conservatives, who went for Ron Paul, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney respectively. The three parts of the party have been held together by agreement on three big issues: spending (which must be cut), taxing (which must be reformed), and President Obama (who must be removed).
These three issues have force. Taxes and spending are the ties that bind, the top and bottom crust that holds the pie together. They’re the reason the party is still the party, and not the splinter groups. The third element, Mr. Obama, is this year equally important.
But there’s no denying the Republicans are in a brawl, and it is becoming ferocious.
In New Hampshire the question isn’t whether Mr. Romney is in the lead—he is, famously. A poll Wednesday from Suffolk University and WHDH-TV had Mr. Romney with 43%, trailed by Mr. Paul at 14%, Newt Gingrich at 9% and Mr. Santorum at 6%. The coming week will answer two questions and begin to answer a third. First, how committed to Mr. Romney are those who tell pollsters they support him? If less than firmly, the other candidates will succeed in doing what they’re trying to do, bleed his lead. Second, how much does Mr. Romney have to win by to be called the winner? Is 15 points enough? Twenty? If he wins by 10, did he “lose”? Third, how much damage is going to be done on the way to the convention?
Right now Mr. Romney’s taking a beating. He’s everyone’s target, and in a way that speaks of something beyond the usual campaign ferocity. There’s something else going on, a taunting: “If you’re so inevitable how come I’m not afraid of you?” Newt Gingrich, angry little attack muffin, called Mr. Romney a liar. A Santorum fund-raising letter this week called Mr. Romney a “bland and boring career politician.” A radio ad for Mr. Paul: Nominating Romney is “a recipe for defeat.” Newt, in an interview: “He’s not truthful.”
In a conference call in Manchester Thursday, Bob Smith and Bob McEwen, who formerly served as a New Hampshire senator and an Ohio congressman respectively, said Mr. Romney was unacceptable to 75% of the GOP. Mr. Smith associated Mr. Romney with establishment types who’d opposed Ronald Reagan: “He’s not a true conservative.” Mr. Smith said Newt has been called “unfit and unstable” by Romney surrogates, and that Mr. Romney had “mocked” the former speaker in Iowa. Mr. McEwen said Mr. Romney represents the “failed wing,” of the party: “A Massachusetts moderate is not going to make the clarion call.”
The campaign ads have been tough too, the best a refound commercial John McCain did in 2008, which calls Mr. Romney a “Masterpiece Theatre”-level flip-flopper. A question, however, is how much prime-time air time is left to buy on TV stations in New Hampshire and neighboring Massachusetts.
Rick Perry, who’s not in New Hampshire, is a confusing guy. The night he tanked, as expected, in Iowa, he said he was going home to “reassess.” That made sense. His campaign hadn’t worked. It may work in four or eight years, but it’s not going to work now. So you go home, and you put some time into a serious, prepared speech about why you ran, what it meant, and why you’re leaving. It’s so good it makes everyone who wasn’t nice to you, including the press, feel bad. And you’re gracious, and you smile, and you say you’ll consider endorsing down the road, but now you’re going to go back to the work of the state you love. And then you make all the candidates come to you. And you greet them affably on the porch and sit down in white wicker chairs and have iced tea. And at the end, at some clever moment, you back the one you’re backing. By the August convention, you’re a new man. People are nice to you and you work very hard and very publicly for the party’s nominee and secretly hope he fails so you can go again in 2016 and get it right this time, and show your enemies.
Instead, Mr. Perry tweeted the morning after Iowa that he was going into South Carolina.
Maybe he is going to roar back down South, gut his way through and pick up the pieces when everyone’s battered. But maybe he’s not seeing that every few cycles the political gods choose someone who’s got everything—attractive, lots of money, a big state, a machine of sorts, or at least a bunch of operatives and hangers-on—and embarrass him. Just for fun. Because it pleases them. The most famous case was John Connally, also a Texas governor. Do not fight the gods! The gods are fickle! They change their minds! But only later.
Rick Santorum has a lot going for him, most especially a deep identification with and caring for the working class, for the displaced and unempowered people who once worked in steel mills and factories and have seen it all go away. He is a Catholic who sees society not as an agglomeration of random Randian individualists but as part of a community, part of a whole. He cares about the American family and walks the walk. All of this has such appeal! His weak spots are supposedly money, organization, a flinty personality and past inflammatory comments. Fair enough. But his weakest spot is foreign policy, where he is not thoughtful but reflexively hard-line. It is one thing to say, as all candidates do and must, that America must be strong, well defended, ready for any challenge. It is another to be aggressive, to be too burly, to be all George W. Bush and no George H.W. Bush. I’m not sure that’s going to play so well in 2012 with New Hampshire Republicans.
We end with a New Hampshire memory and a thought on how time moves. In 1988, in the furious New Hampshire race between Vice President Bush and Bob Dole, stakes were high. Mr. Dole had taken Iowa; if he took New Hampshire he’d win the nomination. Mr. Bush needed a comeback or he was over. What a fight. The weekend before the voting there was a huge snowstorm, and the candidates and their operatives were marooned in hotel suites in Manchester, fidgeting. Lee Atwater, who worked for Mr. Bush, spent his days furiously phoning around for information. Between calls he’d phone his two young daughters. “This’s Daddy!” They’d talk for 45 seconds, an aide would tell him a congressman or governor was on the other line, and he’d abruptly ring off: “Daddy’s gotta go!” He’d talk to the congressman and then call his daughters again. “This’s Daddy! Whatcha doin’ now?”
This week I was talking to a South Carolina Republican activist, the state chairman of Students With Newt. She believes in him: “He’s the most experienced.” She is Sally T. Atwater, the younger sister of the children on the phone long ago.