Presidential race is just beginning
DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney has grown so confident of his Iowa prospects that on Monday night he dropped all humble pretense and proclaimed, "We're going to win this thing." At the same time, Rick Santorum insisted that his momentum carried its own whiff of victory.
Both might be right.
The Iowa caucuses, the curious political ritual that will open yet another race for the White House on Tuesday, have a knack for turning second-place finishes into victories. And the state is just as likely to produce losers — or deal surprises — than to coronate a clear-cut winner.
For all of the attention paid to the field of Republican presidential candidates on the final day of a frenzied burst of campaigning — it felt as if the weight of the Washington political and media establishment landed here Monday — the race is only now beginning.
The polls have been recited as gospel, with Romney and Santorum joining Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at the top of the pack. If those findings hold true, each of the three will rush to claim victory as the contest moves to New Hampshire.
The outcome of the Iowa caucuses will set the tone for the race after a yearlong prelude that has been off the charts in its unpredictability.
Remember when Sarah Palin's bus tour prompted the television pundit class to announce with certainty that she would run?
Who, five months ago, would have predicted that Herman Cain was going to hold a lead in the polls before evaporating? Newt Gingrich was up, then down, then up again; now he is down again.
And Rick Santorum? Two weeks ago, he struggled to get a group of reluctant insurance company employees at a downtown Des Moines office building to stick with him as he spoke during their lunch break. The only warmth he received in the room was from the sweater vest that has come to define him. By Monday, his events were so jammed that a supporter fainted during an overcrowded campaign stop.
His campaign said it was now looking beyond Iowa to consolidate support and emerge as the viable conservative alternative to Romney, a position the party's evangelical base has long been seeking to fill.
Four years ago, Paul was a political punch line. What kind of Republican would call for a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan and for Pentagon cuts? Apparently the kind who attends caucuses in Iowa, according to polls that have shown Paul at or near the top of the field here.
So one would have to be a fool to go too far out on a limb to predict what happens Tuesday and beyond with any certainty — or assume there are no consequences for getting it wrong. (Imagine that.) Yet there is a finite set of twists and turns that can determine whether Republicans move past their internal differences and confront President Barack Obama quickly.
Here is a look at some of the possibilities for Tuesday evening as Republicans gather at the caucuses, a series of meetings in 1,774 precincts across Iowa where voters declare their preferred presidential candidate.
Second chance in Iowa
Iowa was a gamble for Mitt Romney. And even if it doesn't pay off in a clear-cut victory, his advisers were already crowing that they were heading into the rest of the nominating contest in better shape than they once had expected. There are two chief reasons: Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose candidacies have been significantly wounded.
It's not as if there are no warning signs still on the horizon for Romney — many conservatives view him as a hold-your-nose front-runner — but his organization has always been built with a cushion for stumbles along the way. Even as he was crisscrossing Iowa in the final days of the caucus campaign, absentee ballots were landing in the mailboxes of his supporters in Florida, highlighting a depth of organization and planning that none of his rivals can match.
''We're going to win this thing," Romney told an overflowing crowd on Monday evening at the third stop of his dawn-to-dusk day of Iowa campaigning.
If he wins the caucuses decisively, his most immediate challenge is avoiding overconfidence. The voters of New Hampshire, after all, have spent years elevating underdogs and dealing punishing lessons to offset the Iowa results. But Romney's lead is so significant in New Hampshire, according to a long string of polls, that his rivals may be able to defeat him in the primary next Tuesday only if they consolidate their support.
The road to the nomination still passes through South Carolina and other states that have given Romney trouble, but advisers hope that the air of electability will carry him through. If not, Florida and its trove of delegates is waiting just around the corner.
''We've always taken the long-range view: How do you get to 1,150 delegates?" said Rich Beeson, the political director for the Romney campaign. "This is not going to be a two-round fight. This is going to go 12 rounds."
Will he have legs?
In 1988, Pat Robertson showed that there is a way to win in Iowa while technically losing. He defied expectations with a competitive second-place showing, roaring out of the state with a head of steam granted to him by this state's social conservatives — and then smacking headlong into a brick wall, losing badly in New Hampshire and the following contests.
Rick Santorum is committed to not being this year's version of Robertson. That is going to be hard, given Romney's advantages in money and organization.
''It's hard for Rick to have legs," said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who is not aligned with a campaign.
Santorum's team said it had been working harder in New Hampshire and South Carolina than people realized, and predicted he would emerge as the standard-bearer for conservative-base voters suspicious of Romney. Santorum's campaign manager, Michael Biundo, knows how to pull out surprise victories in New Hampshire: He was the deputy manager of Pat Buchanan's victorious campaign there in 1996.
Another factor that could play a role in Santorum's favor: A super PAC that is supporting him, Red, White and Blue Fund, is ramping up its fundraising. It is run by Nick Ryan, a political operative in Iowa who was the chief strategist for the outside political group American Future Fund, which spent about $25 million from anonymous donors against Democrats nationally in the 2010 elections.
Even the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch hailed Santorum on Twitter on Monday night as the "only candidate with genuine big vision for country."
On to North Dakota
It is hard to imagine the Republican Party choosing a presidential nominee who has advocated for the legalization of heroin, once sponsored newsletters containing racist bromides and now calls for a noninterventionist foreign policy. But win or lose here, Ron Paul seems likely to influence his party's nominating contest to the end. And while party leaders are willing to bet their bank accounts he will not be the nominee, they do not rule out that he could win a platform for his anti-war, anti-government message at the convention in Tampa, Fla.
While Paul's passionate followers continue to pour millions into his campaign, the team is mapping out a path to Tampa through a series of Western caucuses.
In downtown Bismarck, N.D., for instance, his state director, Jared Hendrix, is working out of a storefront building to identify likely Paul caucusgoers, who will then receive phone calls and possibly visits from the many Paul volunteers in the state. Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, said he had similar organizations in Maine, Nevada, Louisiana, Washington state, Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. "Our path is through the caucus process," Benton said.
A win here would clearly help Paul become more competitive in New Hampshire, Benton said. But even a third-place showing here, he said, would beat initial expectations and give Paul enough to carry on. The goal, Benton said, is to win it all.
But it is clear the campaign would be satisfied with enough wins to have a say in the party platform and the choice of the nominee this summer.
Whatever the outcome, this campaign will also provide additional national exposure to the next generation of Pauls: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, his son and possible heir to his libertarian following.
Down, but not out?
Newt Gingrich bluntly conceded Monday that he would not win the Iowa caucuses, declaring: "I'm carrying the weight of $3.5 million of negative ads." But even if his own glum prediction comes true, his future may not be dim for long. The next Republican presidential debate — his campaign fuel of choice — is Saturday in New Hampshire, followed by another one on Sunday.
His candidacy has been left for dead before, only to be resuscitated by his depth of knowledge and his ability to draw curious crowds. He faces a decision whether to compete in New Hampshire, where he has the endorsement of the influential Union Leader newspaper, or to try and regroup for the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
Rick Perry has already decided that his only path rests in the South. A day before learning his Iowa fate, his campaign sought to send a signal that he was pressing on, releasing a schedule of 11 stops starting Wednesday in South Carolina.
Yet if he finishes in fifth place in the caucuses, one adviser said privately, he might have to reroute back to Texas.