Tuesday's Iowa caucuses resulted in a slim eight-vote victory for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as well as an important win for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who finished second. Now, as the GOP candidates pivot to next week's New Hampshire primary, the war of words has already intensified.
Iowa claimed the campaign's first victim as Representative Michele Bachmann dropped out of the race following her poor performance. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa after being bombarded over the airwaves by negative ads sponsored by supporters of Romney and Representative Ron Paul. He said he was "stunned by the volume of negative ads" and accused Romney of being untruthful.
Gingrich wasted no time aiming verbal shots at Romney, and a wounded Gingrich could be very dangerous for the former governor. "He's a Massachusetts moderate who will be pretty good at managing the decay of the country but will not change the culture," Gingrich told his followers Tuesday night. Then on Wednesday, after arriving in New Hampshire, Gingrich accused Romney of raising taxes in Massachusetts when he was governor, creating Romneycare, accommodating taxpayer funded abortions, funding Planned Parenthood and appointing liberal judges.
Romney has enjoyed a comfortable lead up to now in polls of New Hampshire Republicans, but Santorum's momentum and Gingrich's attacks could hurt him. Santorum, a Catholic, may be especially appealing to the large Catholic population in the Granite State. His family values message and very personal campaign style may resonate with undecided voters. A recent New Hampshire poll showed Paul and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman a distant second and third to Romney, but it also showed that Santorum was already gaining some support.
Romney built a firewall in New Hampshire, where he owns a residence, and a win there, along with his tight victory in Iowa, would make him the first person not already serving as president to win both. But a strong showing by Santorum would further energize his campaign as the candidates move to the South Carolina and Florida primaries.
The South Carolina primary takes place on January 21. Texas Governor Rick Perry was so disappointed in his Iowa performance that Tuesday night he said he would reassess his campaign. But on Wednesday he announced he was heading to South Carolina to resume his campaign. Santorum could be the beneficiary of Bachmann's withdrawal and Perry's wavering commitment in South Carolina. Meanwhile, Romney has been polling in the low 20s and Gingrich has been hurt by negative ads.
The Florida primary, on January 31, may turn out to be the critical showdown. A poll in mid December showed Romney (27 percent) and Gingrich (26 percent) to be leading. But things are very fluid. Some candidates have begun airing ads in the Sunshine State and 370,000 Republican voters have taken out absentee ballots.
So the heated battle for the Republican nomination will continue for several more weeks. The party is divided between traditional center-right Republicans and the Tea Party and Christian right factions. They are fighting over the future direction of the party. It is unclear whether conservative Santorum's strong showing in Iowa will be enough to propel him into the lead. But many conservatives note that three-quarters of Iowa caucus goers did not vote for Romney, the party's presumed front-runner and leading flip-flopper.
Meanwhile, Gingrich told MSNBC, "By the time [Romney] gets to South Carolina and Florida it will be obvious, this is not a conservative Republican. He is not going to win the nomination and he is not the most electable candidate."
As Santorum says, "Game on!"