Is it good for Mitt Romney? That was the question that preoccupied many pundits as the Iowa caucuses became a tight three-way race, concluding with a photo finish between Romney and Rick Santorum. Make no mistake: a Santorum-Romney tie is effectively a Santorum win, even if eight or so hanging chads were discovered late in the game.
Karl Rove took to the airwaves to assure country club members everywhere that all is still right with the world. Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses back in 1980, he reminded us, and look how that turned out.
Except that Reagan lost Iowa to George H.W. Bush. Romney’s showing is the equivalent to Reagan losing to Phil Crane.
Yet Romney isn’t exactly whistling past the graveyard when he focuses directly on Barack Obama and the general election. He is still up by a wide margin in New Hampshire, though we shall see what the post-Iowa polls say. Despite its social conservatism, South Carolina has generally rallied to the establishment candidate. Just ask George Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
The same George Bush who beat Reagan in Iowa in 1980 finished third there eight years later, behind Dole and Pat Robertson. It turned out to be a bump on the road to his coronation. McCain effectively bypassed the caucuses in 2008 — young Meghan McCain emerged to inform us that they are “meaningless” — and won the nomination anyway.
Lest we forget, McCain’s general election campaign was mostly a disaster. So was Dole’s 1996 effort, after he barely beat Pat Buchanan in Iowa. Republicans were reluctant to nominate either man, but they blundered across the finish line partly thanks to the self-immolation of a divided field and weaker opponents. This didn’t create the conditions for inspiring candidacies.
Romney is in exactly the same boat. Forget the merry-go-round of Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Cain again, and Newt Gingrich. There has been one constant in this race: better than 70 percent of Republican voters support someone other than Mitt Romney. That has been true in the polls. Now in the first meaningful contest of 2012, 75 percent of voters cast their ballots for “not Romney.”
The question is whether Santorum is equipped to be an effective “not Romney.” He gave a solid post-caucus speech showing that he understands Romney’s vulnerabilities and has given some thought to tailoring his conservative message for a broader electorate. He won two statewide races in Pennsylvania, which Republicans have coveted since 1988.
But Santorum doesn’t have much money, even if his fundraising should improve now. This late windfall may not be sufficient to build a quality organization. Santorum won’t have the luxury of camping out in a single state for months at time. He will have to be ready to compete in multiple states and media markets simultaneously.
On limited government, Santorum is like many Republicans: he was a fairly solid fiscal conservative in the 1990s, supported most of the big-government conservative excesses of the Bush years before getting booted from the Senate in 2006, and has tacked back to the right during the Tea Party era. His big-government period and occasional compassionate conservative flights of fancy will give Republicans who dislike his social conservatism cover to oppose him. If Santorum takes the class critique of Romney too far, as Mike Huckabee arguably did four years ago, he may further inflame this problem. Unlike all the other anti-Romneys, Santorum has yet to face significant scrutiny or opposition research.
Rick Perry seems almost certain to get out of the race in the near future, but what some of the other not Romneys will do is less clear. Of particular significance will be Gingrich’s decision on whether to keep seeking the nomination. Santorum and Ron Paul can coexist — they are not, for the most part, competing for the same voters — but Paul could affect Santorum’s placement in New Hampshire.
Santorum has an opportunity to do the unthinkable as the anti-Romney. Republicans have been telling us for months that they don’t want to nominate Mitt Romney. Now we are about to learn how much they really mean it.