Iowa, again, will not be about who wins. The caucuses are about the person who does well enough to be taken seriously as a potential nominee beyond the fuzzy field of dreams that hides here in "the land between two rivers." In this case, Iowa is about who becomes the Non-Romney.
Polls show Romney poised as the likely winner or second place finisher in a fight with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Even Dr. Paul has suggested in interviews that he doesn't go to bed at night with visions of himself in the White House. His race continues to be more of a movement than a candidacy and he lives under a ceiling of support that rarely rises.
Romney, though, has money and the moderate politics to give the president a tough fight in the fall. But he doesn't give his own party those sweaty palms of excitement. And everyone in the GOP wants to see if there is a viable candidate that can become the party's dreamboat, which is the only democratic service likely to be provided by Iowa.
The third place finisher here will get more media narrative and attention than has ever happened to an also-ran. This will be Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Newt Gingrich, (unless the Santorum surge has gone so far the polls haven't measured it accurately and he wins.) The former speaker seems the least likely to take that third slot. Every other ad on television here in Iowa is an attack on Gingrich and his poll numbers have fallen precipitously.
Santorum's, however, have been rising, and he could finish anywhere from third to first. Unfortunately, this rise in popularity is connected to the fact that he has practically lived in Iowa for the past year and has had the profile of an Iowa gubernatorial candidate. Even with money, he cannot sustain that level of exposure beyond Iowa to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and on to Super Tuesday in March.
The case is harder to make for Texas Governor Rick Perry. He has begun to turn around his campaign's blunders and has been on an almost endless bus tour of this state but his numbers appear unlikely to reach above the mid-teens. If, however, that leaves him in third place, Perry will get a new narrative as the Non-Romney. A reconsideration of that nature means he gets examined not so much as gaffe machine but as a long-term governor of a very large state whose politics please both the Christian evangelicals and the Tea Party.
But the Iowans who were supposed to reconsider Perry have been looking hard at Santorum. Even though the former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator lost his reelection campaign by a margin of 18 percent, his support has been on the rise here. A surge in the turnout of evangelical voters, which was once supposed to help Perry, now more likely means Santorum will become the Non-Romney. Perry has been directly attacking Santorum because his campaign team is aware of the threat the Pennyslvanian poses for the Texas governor's chances of a rebound. But there is no data to show the shots have harmed Santorum.
In none of these candidates, however, is there the kind of voter enthusiasm that is tapped when a future president shares a vision of the country's future, except for Ron Paul. When the Texan contrarian walks into a room in Iowa, his supporters are loud and animated. Romney, Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich get a kind of polite applause as if the crowd were trying to make a final decision on whether to buy a Mac or a PC. They seem to want to get the process concluded and see how their machine functions. But that doesn't mean Congressman Paul will be able to outlast Mitt Romney over the long run to the convention.
The winner will be the Non-Romney.
And if that candidate can generate money and enthusiasm in the coming primary and caucus states, Mitt Romney will have a very miserable 2012.
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