The top two vote-getters in the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, are intelligent, knowledgeable, and politically experienced men who have taken conservative positions on the issues. But their political situations are very different.
Senator Santorum, widely regarded as not a serious candidate mere weeks ago, gets a bigger boost from the results even though Romney received a handful more votes than he did. His near-victory speech was tremendously affecting as well as savvy, highlighting subtle but important differences between him and other Republicans, differences that might be attractive to voters. It was addressed squarely to middle-class voters, and emphasized that while Santorum supports tax cuts for people in the top income brackets, he does not believe they would be sufficient to restore broad-based growth. And it tied Santorum’s policies and personality together with the theme of dignity: the dignity of each life, including those of the unborn; the dignity of each person, whatever his economic station.
Santorum’s heady victory will be followed by daunting challenges. He must raise money and then convert it into organizational capacity in multiple states — and do both of these things quickly. He must also survive press scrutiny that is likely to be more intense and hostile than any he has yet received during this campaign. Expect to hear a lot about his remark that as president he would explain the evils of contraception to the nation. Even people who share his convictions might balk at this most quixotic use of the bully pulpit. If Republicans come to believe that Santorum’s priorities are not their own, they will reject him.
Romney has never had a commanding lead in the polls and has not inspired much enthusiasm among Republican voters. His rather complacent speech following the caucuses will not inspire more. He may well believe that he faces no serious challenge for the nomination. But the more he shows that he believes this, the less it will be true. He has also won a potentially effective enemy in Newt Gingrich, who seems likely to become a de facto ally of Santorum. On the other hand, Romney might easily counter Gingrich’s petulant complaints about negative campaigning by promising to be just as tough on Obama.
Romney should be careful in his attacks on Santorum. If he disagrees with Santorum’s approach to winning over blue-collar voters — and some of the policies Santorum recommends in that regard deserve criticism — he will nonetheless have to express that disagreement in a way that does not deepen his own difficulty in appealing to them. Romney would be well within his rights to stress his business and executive credentials, and implicitly or explicitly Santorum’s lack thereof, and to make the case that he is a stronger general-election candidate. But if he appears to cooperate in a media campaign to portray social conservatism as extreme, he will weaken himself severely.
Rep. Michele Bachmann recognized that her campaign is over. As she has said time and again on the trail, she has been a leading rhetorical opponent of the Obama agenda in the House — and it is to that urgent work she should return.
On caucus night it seemed likely that Gov. Rick Perry, too, would quit the race after a dismal showing. Instead he is apparently betting that this race has more turbulence left in it. If before Iowa he had to prove that he would make a winning nominee, after it he must also prove that he still has a shot at the nomination.
Gov. Jon Huntsman has the same burden. He must make the case that his record and agenda should yield conservative support at a time when most attention will be on the Santorum–Romney duel. If he fails, then after New Hampshire he will face the same choice as Congresswoman Bachmann.