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Iowa Caucuses Aren't Really About Iowa Anymore

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IOWA CAUCUSES
AP

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Newt Gingrich is fading faster than a winter sunset in a plowed-down cornfield. So why did a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC just go up with a vicious new attack ad against him here? Isn't that overkill?

The answer is simple enough: The race here is no longer just about the Iowa caucuses, or even about Iowa. It is about the next three primaries in January, which, taken together, are likely to decide the GOP presidential nomination.

For the Romney campaign, it is not enough for Gingrich to lose next Tuesday; they want to bury him and spread salt on his grave. As flawed as Gingrich is, the former House speaker remains a formidable debater and dangerous counterpuncher, and there are more debates ahead, including pivotal ones in New Hampshire on Jan. 7 and 8.

Gingrich also has some fabulously wealthy independent backers, who show no signs of losing their allegiance to him.

And he possesses strong, if provisional, poll numbers in New Hampshire (with its Jan. 10 primary), South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31). He is running a strong though distant second (17 percent) in the Granite State, where he has the support of the dominant Union Leader newspaper and its acid-penned editor, Joe McQuaid. He is still leading in polls in South Carolina (37 percent) and Florida (43 percent). Moreover, he is at least nominally a Southerner -- that is, a Pennsylvania native educated in the South who was elected to Congress from Georgia.

Thursday evening, the Gingrich campaign asked members of the press if they wanted to join the former speaker on a charter flight to New Hampshire on caucus night in Iowa. The message: Forget Iowa; we're on to the next state ....

All of which is why, at least for now, Romney doesn't mind the rise of Rick Santorum. The Romneyans wouldn't mind if the former Pennsylvania senator finished ahead of Gingrich in the race to be the alternative to Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. (Texas Gov. Rick Perry, unless he stages a miraculous comeback in Iowa, doesn't figure in these calculations.)

So should Romney's people be wary about what they wish for? Is Santorum a sleeping giant about to wake up?

At a campaign event in Muscatine, it was hard to see that. Santorum was earnest and, to a conservative crowd, endearingly passionate on issues of family, traditional marriage and welfare reform. It was his third visit in a year to the small Iowa city, and on this occasion he drew a crowd of about 100, perhaps half of them supporters.

They liked him well enough. They liked his emphasis on family issues and his effort to link love of family to fear of federal debt and federal bureaucratic oppression. "He is who I am," said Greg Bickel, a former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who has returned home to Iowa to raise his family. "I identify with his values."

But Santorum, who served in both the House and Senate, has a tendency to recite his history of legislative accomplishment -- which makes sense to a former member, but which sets off alarm bells in the minds of conservative, anti-Washington voters.

"I liked what he said about family, but when he talked, he sounded too much like a congressman," said Linda Steele, a former schoolteacher who is now staying home to raise her kids. "Ron Paul doesn't sound like that."

Still, Santorum is coming on steadily in the polls, and he is expanding plans to compete in the other early states. Thursday night he went up with his first television ad in New Hampshire, a necessary move to take advantage of whatever windfall he gets from his Iowa finish.

A fundraising appeal the same night was successful, according to Santorum's national communications director, Hogan Gidley. "We raised 25 times what we raised on a normal day a week ago," Gidley said, although he refused to give a specific figure.

Santorum claims to have made more visits to New Hampshire than any other candidate except Romney (who has a home there) and more to South Carolina than any other candidate. But he remains in the low single digits in polls of both states. He is pursuing the classic "early state" strategy perfected by Jimmy Carter in 1976, but rarely duplicated since.

Can Santorum do it? His aides hope so. Romney is betting otherwise, which is why he and his allies are still attacking Newt.

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