MITT Romney's slim victory in the Iowa caucuses is a major plum, especially considering his approach in that state this year and caucus-goers' preferences in the traditional kickoff to the race for the White House.
Unlike 2008, when he spent more than 100 days in Iowa and finished second to Mike Huckabee, Romney spent just 18 days making appearances in advance of Tuesday night's caucuses. His manpower in Iowa was much smaller this time — only five paid staff, 10 times less than four years ago. And yet when the votes were counted, Romney finished with a handful more than former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who logged 105 days in Iowa and spoke at more than 350 events.
Santorum is a staunch conservative, and thus was appealing to the generally very conservative men and women who make it a point to show up for these caucus meetings. He will be buoyed by his late surge and second-place finish. And Santorum should be — but so too should Romney.
It's easy to dismiss the Iowa results as not all that meaningful, because many have won there only to fizzle out afterward. Huckabee is an example. Tom Harkin won the Democratic vote in the 1992 Iowa caucuses. Bob Dole was the GOP winner in 1988. Romney himself said Wednesday that winning Iowa doesn't guarantee a thing. And to be sure, a stumble next week in New Hampshire, where he is the strong favorite, would more than cancel out what happened in Iowa.
But the fact that Iowa conservatives were comfortable enough with Romney to give him the victory can't be overlooked. He trailed badly in polling only a few weeks ago, almost an afterthought. And he has been criticized by others in the GOP field as not a true conservative. Santorum dismissed Sen. John McCain's endorsement of Romney, saying McCain “is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Mitt's view of the world.”
But our sense is Iowa caucus goers were less concerned with ideology than they were results in November. Ahead of Tuesday's caucuses, one Iowa voter told Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley A. Strassel that she had been leaning toward former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but, “In the end, I'm looking for someone who can beat Obama.”
That someone is Mitt Romney, who wisely has spent the bulk of his time focusing on President Barack Obama's performance while others have taken their cracks at trying to unseat Romney as front-runner. Herman Cain came and went. Michele Bachmann bowed out Wednesday after finishing last in Iowa's six-person field. Rick Perry's fifth-place finish continued his downward trajectory. Gingrich's waning appeal was reflected in his fourth-place finish in Iowa, below even the unelectable Ron Paul.
We suspect Santorum is the latest “non-Romney” and will fade before long. When that happens, his supporters — and those of the would-be nominees who are on their way out — need to rally behind Romney because what's most important is winning the White House in November. The sooner the GOP has its nominee, the sooner it can focus the money, time and energy on that ultimate goal.
Regardless of the margin, Romney's showing in Iowa provides a nice boost for the front-runner. On to New Hampshire!