The best news from last night’s Iowa caucuses was Rep. Ron Paul’s failure to win in probably his most favorable conditions—a caucus system that permitted non-Republicans to vote easily and placed premiums on enthusiasm and organizational discipline. Paul may stick around, but the longshot just became a really long shot. Be grateful.
So Romney won by eight votes. He could have won by 80 or even 800 and the practical result would have been the same (besides the actual delegates, who aren’t actually bound to Romney anyway, in another quirk of the Iowa caucuses). Many Jewish Republicans would like to have seen Mitt Romney, still the frontrunner, win going away; but as in 2008, he failed to. Rick Santorum’s surge seems less relevant to Santorum than to Romney: Santorum is the fifth anti-Romney candidate (in order: Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain [!], Newt Gingrich, Santorum) to emerge—he just happened to do so at the time of the Iowa caucuses. The Forward published a primer on the former Pennsylvania senator, known most for his extreme social conservatism and the ire this has raised from some social liberals: he is strongly pro-life and anti-gay (marriage); he espouses the hawkishness that has become de rigeur for nearly all non-Paul GOP candidates, all of whom mentioned Iran or Israel in their speeches last night. (Santorum has echoed Gingrich’s line about the Palestinians being an invented people.) He had an excellent speech last night, casting himself as a values guy who also thinks of the less well-off and particularly fired steelworkers (hint, like people fired by Romney, the consultant; hint, Pennsylvania and Ohio); the prospect of a Catholic Republican who might attract Hispanic votes represents Karl Rove’s ultimate dream.
Judging by the speeches last night, Romney, the relative moderate and very clearly most competent executive—and almost certainly the candidate who would have the best chance of defeating President Obama and attracting Jewish votes and money while doing so—continues to be the center of gravity, affecting the orbits of all the other bodies. But those bodies seem inclined to crash into the race’s Sun, even at the expense of their own candidacies. (Gingrich, in particular, seems dead-set on making sure Romney isn’t nominated.) As for Santorum? He has little money or organization outside of Iowa, which he spent the past few months doubling-down on, and is generally seen as fringe. That was a great speech last night. But here’s betting his strong showing only allows the other candidates and the media to continue the narrative that, despite undoubtedly being on paper the best candidate, Romney just has not been able to sell himself to the Republican base.
Who benefits? Some will say Santorum (fewer will say Gingrich, and fewer still Perry or Bachmann, who look pretty done); some will say some magical as-yet-unannounced candidate. I say it’s Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China (for Obama!). Like Romney, he’s a comparatively moderate Mormon with strong executive experience. He has the best foreign policy bona fides of any of the candidates (oh and has toyed with ordering a ground invasion of Iran to prevent it from going nuclear). The media adores him, in part because he isn’t a bomb-thrower (and in part because the media comprises coastal liberal elites who see Huntsman as the most palatable Republican—I kid, sort of). He scored one percent last night, but that’s okay—he ceded Iowa long ago to focus on … New Hampshire, where he has been spending virtually all his time and is currently in third place (Romney has a commanding lead). That primary is six days from now. Expect the attention to shift to some extent to Huntsman. If he puts on a strong enough showing, watch his profile skyrocket.
Still, it’s likely to be Romney. The Republican establishment is desperate for him (Sen. John McCain, the last GOP standard-bearer, will endorse him today). All this sound and fury will end up signifying nothing. But it’s still fun, right! Yeah, not really.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.