Romney’s Huge Win

Eight votes don’t mean much, but even had Mitt Romney lost out to Rick Santorum, he would still have emerged as the big winner last night. He didn’t lock up the nomination, but he acquired a key strategic advantage.

To beat Romney, you’ve got to get him one-on-one and win all the non-Romney votes out there. (They aren’t really anti-Romney, but they sure would prefer someone who had never been pro-choice and was not a Mormon.) Had Santorum not surged in Iowa, Newt would now have Mitt one-on-one and could have done some serious damage.

But now, Santorum and Gingrich are about to split the same vote.

After all, these two candidates are very similar. Except for the obvious differences in age, they have virtually identical views on everything. Santorum has less baggage but also isn’t as good as Gingrich in debate. Gingrich has a lot of negatives to carry around, but he has two debates a week coming up in January, and debates are his strength.

Looking forward, Romney must and will win New Hampshire. No candidate comes out of Iowa with the momentum to defeat him in what is almost a home-state primary for the former Massachusetts governor. Then the show moves to South Carolina, a pitfall for Romney. But if Santorum remains strong, Gingrich and he will split the vote and give Romney a chance at a third-in-a-row victory, which could lead to a sweep of the table.

Gingrich went after Romney last night in his speech. But that’s the wrong strategy. Santorum, not Romney, is his big problem. He’s got to take Santorum out before he can qualify for a run at Mitt Romney.

There are two other factors that make Jan. 2 a date to celebrate for Romney:

First, it’s very important to look like a winner in these caucuses and primaries this year. Republicans are so focused on beating Obama that being a winner is its own credential, and being a loser its own disqualification. Gingrich looks like a loser coming out of Iowa, and Romney, after a series of defeats in 2008, looks, at last, like a winner.

Romney knocked Rick Perry out of the race. Political pros realized early on that there were only three candidates who might be president: Romney, Gingrich, and Perry. Now there are only two left.

The conventional wisdom is that Santorum surged in Iowa because of his hard work there. His tenacity in visiting all 99 counties had little to do with his strong finish. Nor did he win because he embraced a key issue (like 9-9-9 was for Cain) or because he did well in a debate (as Gingrich did) or that he had a lot of money (like Perry) or that he had a demographic appeal (like Bachmann). The fact is that he finished a strong and close second because he was the last survivor among the alternatives to Romney. The voters tried Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Ron Paul (in order) and found each wanting. So Santorum was the one who was left. His surge in Iowa gives him momentum, but he’d better fill it in with substance if he wants to last.

Gingrich can still beat Romney. This race is not over. Gingrich will rise again in South Carolina. But how far and how fast he rises depends on one central question: Can he be so demonstrably superior to Santorum in the debates that Santorum fades, leaving Gingrich to face Romney one-on-one?

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