DES MOINES, Iowa -- The final Iowa results aren't in but we already know one big winner: President Barack Obama.
The dismal, nasty campaign here was not good for the Republican Party or the country. There was precious little debate on anything other than who literally was Holier than Thou; the dollars spent on attack ads were, vote for vote, enormous. One GOP top finisher is unpopular with the base; another is too far out of the mainstream to be nominated, let alone elected; the third lost his last Senate race, in Pennsylvania, by 17 points, and is far to the right of the country on social issues.
All of which is good news for a president with a 40 percent job approval rating and a desperate need for a weak opponent next November.
Projections put the GOP turnout at about 118,000 votes, roughly the same as 2008, a year in which the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race drew twice as many participants. In other words, the turnout was not the kind of show of interest and enthusiasm that would presage a Republican surge next fall.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney once again proved that he is a tough sell among the base GOP vote; as of this writing, he is projected to win roughly the anemic 25 percent or so that he won four years ago when he was drubbed in Iowa by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Yes, Romney did not have as big an operation here this time as he did in 2008, but he made a major commitment at the end, and his campaign exuded confidence.
Romney appears to be getting almost exactly what he got the time before -- and in many cases he was probably getting the very same voters. That wasn't enough to light a fire last time; it's hard to see how it lights a fire this time. The conventional wisdom is that, by besting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- his two wealthiest and most charismatic opponents -- Romney did what he needed to do.
But it's hard to argue that Romney sparked any excitement or growing appeal.
Paul, with a superb and focused organization and angry message of antagonism to all Powers That Be, is not considered a mainstream candidate outside of his own libertarian ranks. He did show surprising strength among evangelicals here, winning what the entrance polls said was 20 percent of their vote. A candidate who favors the gold standard, a withdrawal of all American military forces from the world -- and whose old newsletters contain racist, homophobic and just plain weird ideas -- cannot get the Republican nomination, let alone win the presidency.
But Paul and his forces can, under the new system of the GOP, amass enough delegates to go to Tampa this summer and cause havoc at the GOP convention.
As for Santorum, he emerged as the champion of the "values voters," and does have a good record as a solid conservative on most non-cultural issues. He also hails from a blue state that the Republicans would love to win, Pennsylvania, where he won two state-wide Senate races. He did so even though he is from Pittsburgh, which is a hard place from which to get elected state-wide.
But in his third and last race Santorum lost by 17 points, and he is, at best, an earnest campaigner. At worst, he can come off as uninspiring and petty.
He is, nevertheless, a fighter, and a dogged man who will -- jet-propelled by Iowa -- fight Romney until his last breath.
No wonder Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, was smiling in the press room as the results came in.
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