Iowa: Romney, Santorum and Paul in top tier

January 4, 2012

The Associated Press

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidenMitt Romney addresses supporters with his wife Ann and their sons during a rally in Des Moines Tuesday night.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, second from left, looks over early results with campaign aides Tuesday night.

Mitt Romney admits his eight-vote Iowa caucus victory was "pretty narrow" but says he's got more staying power than runners-up Rick Santorum and Ron Paul or his other rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.

Heading off to New Hampshire, where Romney holds a healthy lead in the polls, the former Massachusetts governor predicts a long road to the nomination. Romney says his national campaign team and strong fundraising will set him apart from the pack.

He told CBS' "Early Show" on Wednesday that he will take his campaign all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa and predicts others are going to find that hard to do.  One candidate — Rick Perry — is already stepping back to decide whether to stay in the race after a fifth-place finish.

Republicans rendered the first verdict in the 2012 race for the White House on Tuesday in Iowa caucuses from Adel to Zearing, opening night for the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shared the straw poll ballot with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in a caucus race as jumbled as any in the 40 years since Iowa gained the presidential campaign lead-off position.

The winner was in line for bragging rights — and perhaps much more — as the Republican nominating campaign makes the turn to primaries in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, then South Carolina and Florida before the end of January. For some of the also-rans, history suggested the first event of the year might also be their last.

Big night for Santorum, Paul

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum says his strong, second-place showing means it's "game on" for the party's presidential nomination, and he says for voters interested in a conservative -- he's it.

Santorum told supporters, "It's now or never for conservative voters" and that he is "the only authentic, passionate conservative who can unite the GOP."

Meanwhile, Texas Congressman Ron Paul says he's happy with his "good showing" in Iowa, where he finished third in the Republican presidential caucuses.

The Republican with a libertarian bent told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday he felt it was a sound performance, and "it's doing very well to be in the money" and getting an opportunity to go into New Hampshire.

Paul seeks to distinguish his brand of conservatism with "neo-conservatism," saying he doesn't understand why "some conservatives think that the more money you spend overseas, the more conservative you are."

He says he can be a significant factor in this year's election campaign because his candidacy has attracted many young voters.

Different factors drive caucus decisions

About a third of early arrivers at the caucuses Tuesday night said they most wanted a candidate who could defeat Obama, and they tended to favor Romney. Paul held a broad advantage among the nearly one in four who called the selection of a true conservative their top priority, and he also made a strong showing among younger and first-time caucus-goers.

Supporters of the tea party made up about two-thirds of the electorate, and were nearly evenly split among Paul, Romney and Santorum.

The economy and the federal budget deficit were top issues for caucus attendees, more important than abortion or health care.

The survey by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and television networks was based on interviews with more than 700 people arriving at 40 precinct caucuses across the state.

Obama was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Even so, his re-election campaign set up eight offices across Iowa, made hundreds of thousands of calls to voters and arranged a video conference with caucus night supporters.

"This time out is going to be in some ways more important than the first time," the president told Democrats across the state. "Change is never easy."

The Iowa caucuses' outsized importance was underscored by the estimated $13 million in television advertising by the candidates and so-called super PACs as well as thousands of campaign stops designed to sway 100,000 or so voters.

Ironically, the weak economy that has made Obama appear vulnerable nationally was muted as an issue here. Despite areas of economic distress, the farm economy is strong. Iowa's unemployment in November was 5.7 percent, sixth lowest in the country and well below the national reading of 8.6 percent.

Iowans first, but not always right

Despite its importance as the lead-off state, Iowa has a decidedly uneven record when it comes to predicting national winners. It sent Obama on his way in 2008, but eventual Republican nominee John McCain finished a distant fourth here to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Even before Tuesday night's results were known, this year's Republican hopefuls were turning their attention to the next contests. Romney's campaign purchased time to run television ads in Florida, where balloting is three weeks distant. Aides said the Gingrich campaign had purchased a full-page newspaper ad in New Hampshire for Wednesday morning calling Romney a "Timid Massachusetts Moderate."

Gingrich also says his campaign will put up TV ads in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — the next three states to vote — that aggressively contrast his record with that of the former Massachusetts governor.

At least one pro-Gingrich super PAC is getting into the mix. Rick Tyler of Winning Our Future says, "We definitely plan to engage." Tyler declined to be specific.

The shift by Gingrich to a more muscular strategy comes after he watched a lead in Iowa polls evaporate amid a barrage of attack ads, many run by a super PAC backing Romney.

A key question is whether Gingrich will have the cash to wage an effective assault. A spokesman says he'd raised roughly $9 million in the last three months of the year but that he would spend most of it to compete in Iowa. It's also unclear how much money the pro-Gingrich PACs have raised.

Campaign heated up in closing days

Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008 despite a costly effort, initially campaigned cautiously this time around.

But he barnstormed extensively across the state in the race's final days in pursuit of a first-place finish, running as a conservative businessman with the skills to fix the economy and as the challenger with the best chance to defeat Obama.

Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann argued that Romney wasn't nearly conservative enough on the economy and social issues such as abortion. They vied for months to emerge as the alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

Paul's libertarian-leaning views set him apart, and he hoped that might be enough to claim victory in a six-way race where no one broke away from the pack.

Iowa's approach unique and unpredictable

Unlike in a primary, in which voting occurs over hours, the 809 Iowa caucuses were meetings in which Republicans gathered for an evening of politics. Each presidential candidate was entitled to have a supporter deliver a speech on his or her behalf before straw ballots were taken.

Under party rules, caucus results have no control over the allocation of Iowa's 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The Associated Press uses the caucus outcome to calculate the number each candidate would win if his support remained unchanged in the pre-convention months.

The race in Iowa came to be defined by its unpredictability as the months rolled by and nationally televised candidate debates piled up.

Bachmann gained early momentum on the strength of a victory in a summertime straw poll and a feisty debate performance.

But she quickly faltered when Perry joined the race and overshadowed her as the 10-year governor of Texas with deep-pocketed supporters and an unbroken record of electoral success at home.

Perry's rise lasted only as long as a couple of debates — including one where he memorably was unable to recall the third of three federal agencies he wanted to abolish.

Next up was Herman Cain, a black former businessman who improbably shot to the top of the polls in a party that draws its support chiefly from white voters. He suspended his candidacy a few weeks later, after a woman said she and he had carried on a long-term extra-marital affair.

Gingrich rode the next surge in the polls, a remarkable comeback for a man whose campaign had imploded earlier in 2011 when most of his aides quit in frustration. But his rise lasted only until a super PAC that supports Romney began attacking him on television.

Enter Paul, and Santorum, both campaigning widely across the state and hoping to have the last say.

Democrats watched carefully in a state that has swung between the two parties in recent presidential elections.

It was Iowa that launched Obama on the way to the White House four years ago when he won a convincing victory in the caucuses.

The state's lead-off spot has been a fixture for decades. Democrats moved the caucuses up to early January in 1972, and Republicans followed suit four years later.

 

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