Not long ago few thought Mitt Romney could win both the very conservative Iowa caucuses and then the quirky, slightly contrarian New Hampshire primary. If he did, most assumed he would have a lock on the Republican nomination. For understandable reasons: No other GOP presidential candidate in an open race has achieved back-to-back victories in these first two contests.
By this time next week, we'll know if Mr. Romney is 2-0. If so, he becomes the prohibitive favorite.
The other big Iowa winner is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Iowa does winnow the field (as it did with Wednesday's departure of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann). But it also gives unheralded contenders like Mr. Santorum a chance to jump into the spotlight. And in spectacular fashion, he did. He essentially tied the GOP front-runner, leap-frogging the governor of the second-largest state (Rick Perry) and the former speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich).
Mr. Santorum shouldn't kid himself; he faces huge obstacles. He's spent a year making Iowa his second home. Now he's in less friendly, less familiar terrain. He hasn't had to endure withering scrutiny but will shortly. His chief opponent has tremendous organizational and financial advantages and has been through the rigors of a presidential primary race. Still, Mr. Santorum has a shot, and that's all he could have hoped for.
Looking ahead, he has to hope New Hampshire pays attention to what happens in Iowa (it traditionally hasn't) and that he can rapidly cobble together money, organization and a message to compete in January's primaries in South Carolina and Florida, as well as the Granite State. Until yesterday, Mr. Santorum hadn't been in New Hampshire in a month, South Carolina for two, and Florida hardly at all.
Because he has a high floor of support but also a very low ceiling, Texas Congressman Ron Paul is likely to have seen his high-water mark Tuesday. The results provided him little that helps him broaden his support in New Hampshire and subsequent primaries. His manager admitted as much by saying they would focus on caucuses rather than the more numerous primaries, a strategy guaranteed to marginalize Mr. Paul as a candidate and maximize his convention influence.
Despite a deeply disappointing fourth-place finish, Mr. Gingrich—who only a month ago held a double digit lead in Iowa—will go on, driven in part by his obvious bitterness toward Mr. Romney. This puts him dangerously close to looking "enraged, wearing a full hockey mask and carrying a chainsaw," as one Washington observer put it. Mr. Gingrich can recover, but only if he returns to what made him the front-runner a month ago: coming off as the best-informed debater and offering a wide-ranging vision.
Mr. Perry says he'll continue and focus on South Carolina. But if spending $5.5 million in Iowa on television (roughly $430 a vote) didn't work, the $3 million or $4 million he has left in his war chest may not change his fortunes down South. At least it gives him the right to try.
This leaves Mr. Romney facing a two-front war: one in New Hampshire against Messrs. Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and former Amb. Jon Huntsman, and a second one in South Carolina against Messrs. Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and Perry. His deep organization and large treasury are critical to weathering assaults from these gentlemen.
The former Massachusetts governor should prepare to be the piñata at Saturday's debate in Manchester, N.H. It won't be pleasant, but he can solidify his lead if he deflects the attacks in a dignified, confident manner and avoids looking irritated or rattled. As in earlier debates, better to look amused rather than annoyed. Wherever possible, Mr. Romney should focus his fire on substantive disagreements with Mr. Obama while demonstrating his readiness to embrace bold reform (as he did in his entitlement reform speech endorsing the thrust of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget). Easier said than done.
If a year ago you said that Mitt Romney would win Iowa, be heading to New Hampshire with a large lead, and his chief opponent would be a former senator who lost his re-election race in a swing state by 18 points, you would have had to believe Mr. Romney would be on his way to winning the GOP nomination. And you know what? Now we'll see if it plays out that way.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, January 4, 2012.