In an almost eerie coincidence, Mr. Romney won nearly the same percentage of the vote, about 25 percent, as he did in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, when he lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That result reinforces questions about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to grow support among the Republican Party’s conservative base.
But aside from the photo finish, the story of the night was Mr. Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania barely had a pulse a month ago and has emerged as the conservative alternative to the more-moderate Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The question for him is whether he can quickly build a national organization and war chest to compete effectively against the well-funded and well-organized Romney.
“If Santorum can get his act together, the GOP primary could certainly go beyond Super Tuesday,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.
A shrinking field is likely to help Santorum. Late Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he was returning to Texas to reassess his campaign, a signal that he is probably about to drop out of the race. Governor Perry, who stumbled in debates after a promising start to his campaign, finished fifth in Iowa with 10 percent.
One candidate who is sure to stay in the hunt is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who finished a strong third here with 21 percent. The libertarian-leaning congressman has a devoted following, one that has grown substantially from the 10 percent he won in Iowa four years ago. His departures from mainstream Republican thought make him anathema to the Republican establishment, but party leaders will tiptoe carefully around him amid concerns he might launch a third-party candidacy that could harm the eventual GOP nominee.
The Republican nomination sweepstakes now moves to New Hampshire, which holds its primary next Tuesday. Romney is well-known there as the former governor of a neighboring state and part-time resident, and has polled well there since the start of the 2012 cycle. He should win New Hampshire comfortably. But he can take nothing for granted – especially after nearly losing to the upstart Santorum in Iowa.
After all, Romney lost New Hampshire four years ago to the Republicans’ eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain. The Arizona senator is expected to endorse Romney on Wednesday in New Hampshire, where McCain remains popular. Four years ago, there was no love lost between the former rivals, but Romney subsequently campaigned for McCain in Arizona when the senator ran for reelection in 2010.
Now, not only must Romney win New Hampshire but he must match the expectation that he will win by a substantial margin. Currently, polls show him ahead of his nearest rival, Paul, by more than 20 points. Time is short, and pre-Iowa polls show Santorum at just 4 percent in New Hampshire. But if Santorum can catch on among conservatives there, he could cut into Romney’s margin. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who skipped Iowa and has staked his campaign in New Hampshire, could also eat away at Romney’s moderate base over the coming week. Mr. Huntsman is averaging almost 11 percent in New Hampshire polls.
Four years ago, the Southern Mr. Huckabee did not translate well in New Hampshire. But Santorum, from Pennsylvania, could be a different story. The question is whether he can make himself well-enough known in just a few days. Santorum succeeded in Iowa in part by practically living there for the past several months, visiting all 99 counties and shaking every available hand. He last visited New Hampshire in early November.
Weighing against Santorum in New Hampshire is his strong appeal as a religious conservative. Granite State Republicans are generally not inclined toward open professions of faith, overturning abortion rights, or undoing the state’s legalization of gay marriage. In addition, the state’s GOP primary is open to independents and Democrats, which could help both Romney and Paul.
But Santorum’s consistently conservative positions contrast with Romney’s changed views over the years. The Pennsylvanian also performed well in the debates, even as he had to fight for air time.
Another key figure, going forward, could be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He came in fourth in Iowa with 13 percent, after leading the polls there for a period. Mr. Gingrich failed to respond soon enough to the barrage of negative ads he sustained at the hands of Team Romney, and now he sounds prepared for payback.
In remarks to supporters Tuesday evening, he said he wasn’t going to “go out and run nasty ads,” but then suggested a novel definition of negativity.
“I do reserve the right to tell the truth,” a visibly irritated Gingrich said. “And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on [Romney's] record than it is on politics.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also pledged to stay in the race, after a sixth-place showing in Iowa, her birthplace. Congresswoman Bachmann won only 5 percent of the caucus vote, a major comedown from her Iowa straw poll victory last August.
After New Hampshire, the next big tests will come in the South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31) primaries. Santorum is likely to find a positive reception in South Carolina, where social conservatives and tea partyers are strong. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has endorsed Romney, and so the primary will test her clout. Florida will present a major challenge to Santorum and his ability to organize across a large territory. Florida –the state with the fourth-largest population in the country – has multiple media markets. Competing there will be expensive.