There are several immediate thoughts that seem largely unnoted by talking heads and pundits the day after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 8-vote landslide victory (out of some 120,000 votes cast) in the Iowa Republican caucuses over former Sen. Rick Santorum.
First, Santorum not only benefited from spending far more personal time in the state than any other candidate. He was also the principal inheritor of the same Protestant fundamentalist votes that brought former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a surprise 2008 victory in the same contest. The fundamentalist vote is stronger among Iowa Republicans than in most other states and will not be available to Santorum in New Hampshire and in many of the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states that lie ahead on the campaign trail.
Second, Rep. Ron Paul, who had a strong third-place finish, benefited from many independent and even Democratic votes cast by walk-up voters not normally participating in Iowa Republican politics. Many of these were younger, first-time voters attracted by his libertarian and isolationist views.
Third, it is not at all certain that Santorum and Paul will continue to be strong contenders as the nominating process proceeds. The Iowa caucuses could, in fact, prove to be the high-water mark for both.
Santorum will not have time to walk upcoming states, county by county, pizza parlor by pizza parloar, as he did in Iowa but instead will need to hustle the money necessary to mount expensive media campaigns in contests that will occur now in rapid order in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and horrendously costly Florida. Nor, as noted, will he be able to count on a religious fundamentalist base outside southern and border states. Many of the upcoming GOP contests do not allow for participation by non-Republican voters, which will pull away part of Paul's base.
Fourth, it is not at all certain that the field will be quickly reduced to a contest between moderate front-runner Romney and a single "conservative alternative" candidate. Santorum's and Paul's strong showings in Iowa will give them a ticket to ride, no matter their showings in the New Hampshire primary next week. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is by-passing New Hampshire entirely and could revive his candidacy in the more friendly environs of South Carolina.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is angry and determined, in particular, to punish Romney for the so-called negative media campaign launched against Gingrich in Iowa by Romney supporters. (Unfortunately for Gingrich, the campaign was both negative and true). Gingrich has been endorsed in New Hampshire by the Manchester Union-Leader and may be able to sustain himself in the joint nationally televised debates which will begin again this coming weekend.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has done a Santorum in New Hampshire with many personal campaign appearances while the other candidates were in Iowa. He could do reasonably well in New Hampshire but not enough to run ahead of Romney; he is as disliked by party conservatives as Romney.
So, the present candidate group could stay as it is into the Florida primary at the end of this month. Eventually, a single conservative challenger to Romney may emerge but it is wholly uncertain who that might be. And it may not happen quickly.
There are a couple other factors not being widely discussed.
The first is Romney's Mormonism. Protestant fundamentalists, in particular, tend to view Mormonism as a cult. Voters will not talk about this openly but, beneath the surface, Romney may be losing several percentage points in southern and border states, in particular, because of his religion. (Huntsman, too, is Mormon but will not be a factor in the race unless he surprises with a strong New Hampshire showing.)
Another is Santorum's vulnerability on many issues. He lost his 2006 Senate reelection campaign one-sidedly in Pennsylvania. He has chosen to challenge Paul aggressively on Paul's foreign-policy views (as has Gingrich) and, thus, is unlikely to pickup any of Paul's voting support should Paul's candidacy fade. His former Senate colleagues view him as a sincere but often ineffectual guy not up to the presidency.
Another factor is that the Republican Party establishment tends to view Romney as the only certifiably electable general-election candidate and will be sending money and endorsements his way pronto. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who defeated Romney in the 2008 GOP presidential-nominating race, is stepping up today to endorse Romney even though the two ended the 2008 campaign season on bad personal terms.
So, going into New Hampshire, Romney remains the frontrunner for the nomination. And, so long as the field contains more than one conservative challenger, he will remain so. He has run a careful, mistake-free campaign that has failed to excite party true believers but which should be professionally admired. He has never failed to lose sight of the post-nomination general electorate, which is far more moderate than the intense partisans who dominate nominating politics.
In football terms, Romney is making steady downfield progress with a three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust offense while his opponents are being forced to throw hail-Mary passes and try high-risk plays to stay in the game. He has not been forced into fumbles or interceptions and shows no sign of doing so.