Conservatives continue to be concerned about Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s credibility in advancing their agenda, despite his eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Perhaps that razor-thin margin over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is evidence of conservative qualms about the former Massachusetts governor. After all, Santorum’s campaign was given little chance just a few weeks ago, and he spent a pittance compared with Romney in Iowa.
While Romney ignored Iowa for months, he predicted a resounding victory over the weekend. That hardly came to pass. The campaign equation changes, with Michele Bachmann now out of the race and Rick Perry shaken, but deciding to press on in South Carolina.
If Bachmann were still in the race, Romney could count on conservatives splitting their votes among her, Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But now just three are fighting for the conservative imprimatur, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul going for the protest vote.
To be sure, Iowa isn’t representative of the rest of the nation. Its unemployment rate is only 5.7 percent, compared with 8.6 percent for the nation as a whole, meaning economic issues are less important there than elsewhere.
And an entrance poll that Edison Research conducted showed that nearly 60 percent of Iowa voters consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christians. So social issues are more important in Iowa than the rest of the nation, giving Santorum buoyancy in the caucuses that he probably won’t receive elsewhere.
Still, the fact remains that Romney won only about the same number of votes in Iowa as he did in 2008, when he was smashed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Although social issues probably will fade in importance as the primaries march on, there are still many voters to whom these issues are quite important. Romney has been able to get away with essentially ignoring them. But that is likely to change soon and his formerly moderate positions on these issues, such as support for abortion, could come back to bite him.
In addition, the other candidates have been fairly gentle in their treatment of Romney — until this point. That’s going to change, as evidenced by Gingrich’s strong attack against the front-runner in his post-caucus speech Tuesday night.
Gingrich said he is looking forward to a “great debate in the Republican Party.” His campaign is placing a full-page ad in New Hampshire’s Union Leader proclaiming the contest now consists of a “bold Ronald Reagan conservative” and a “timid Massachusetts moderate.”
The New Hampshire primary takes place Jan. 10, and Romney is favored heavily. But then comes South Carolina, where Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry can mount strong opposition.
It’s unclear whether the attacks on Romney from Gingrich and Santorum will weaken the front-runner or simply split conservative votes between the latter two candidates. The two are likely to hurt each other in the Granite State, New Hampshire GOP strategist Pat Griffin told Politico
. “Santorum and Newt split the social conservatives,” he predicted. “This will be ugly, but I still think it is Mitt’s to lose.”
It will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out between Gingrich and Santorum. The former House speaker heaped praise upon his rival for his strong Iowa showing. But both the Gingrich and Santorum camps seem to be ignoring each other, presenting the campaign as a two-man contest between their guy and Romney, or perhaps a three-man race including Paul.
“We see this developing into a campaign with Romney, Paul, and Santorum, so people can go with the moderate, the libertarian or the conservative,” Santorum’s top strategist, John Brabender, told Politico. “That’s the argument going forward.”
He rejects the notion that Romney is the Republican with the best chance to beat President Barack Obama, though that is the opinion of people responding to polls so far.
“You don’t have to compromise on conservative convictions to beat Obama,” Brabender said. He pointed out that there are areas where Romney’s views have essentially matched Obama’s. “The [bank] bailout, Romneycare — there’s no contrast there.” In addition, “Romney has no foreign policy experience,” he said.
Santorum, who drove around Iowa in a pickup, will also seek to appeal to middle- and lower-class Republicans who are worried about their finances and may be put off by Romney’s huge wealth. “I also believe we as Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in society,” Santorum said in his post-caucus speech.
The former senator says it’s important for conservatives to back a single candidate, though he’s obviously a bit biased on that one.
In a fundraising email Tuesday, he wrote, “We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the GOP establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November.” He was referring to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s defeat at the hands of Obama in 2008.
The Romney camp portrays Santorum’s threat as limited because he was considered a fringe candidate until now, so his record hasn’t thoroughly been examined and his campaign has little organization or money.
“Santorum will have a difficult time when these primaries start to happen every week and then there are days with multi-state primaries,” Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, a Romney surrogate in Iowa, told Politico. “Unless you have the resources, infrastructure and organization in place, it’s tough.”
In addition, “Those others who are still in the race will divide a lot of the vote, and I think Romney will only grow from here,” Flake said.
As for Gingrich, although his campaign has decided not to attack Santorum, staffers say he is the conservative with a national following. “This is a national race, not a local dance,” said Gingrich senior adviser Kevin Kellems. “Newt Gingrich is a national candidate who has remained at or near the top of virtually all national polls — as well as in South Carolina and Florida.”
Of course, those polls may change quickly after Gingrich’s fourth-place showing in Iowa and Santorum’s second-place finish. But both John McCain in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992 rebounded from weak performances in Iowa to capture their party’s nomination.
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