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Drake and the Caucuses: Reflections on the ABC/Yahoo GOP Debate

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During the past week, ABC has come and gone. It's been a whirlwind of activity, as hundreds of people have come together to put Drake University in the national spotlight. We went live at 8:00pm Saturday night. Over the course of the week, an extraordinary set was built, leading many of our students to take to Twitter, asking how they made Sheslow Auditorium look so "shiny." The simple answer is this -- a lot of very hard work by a team of exceptional professionals.

Now that the dust is settling on campus and we're all re-entering normal campus life during finals week, the political universe is making sense of what we saw on Saturday night.

Certainly, the big take away was the firework display between Romney and Gingrich. As the newest "flavor of the month" (to use the words of past front runner and current also ran Herman Cain), Newt Gingrich deflected attacks skillfully, even when directly confronted with his multiple marriages. Romney stayed the course, emphasizing "sobriety" (literally, a religious imperative for Romney and figuratively the tone and tenor of his campaign thus far). Gingrich doubled down on his recent comments about Palestinians, and clearly enjoyed the intellectual sparring on the issue. But for a college professor (who nonetheless throws rhetorical attacks at college professors at every opportunity), no one should be surprised by his obvious delight in tough debate moments. Will it win the favor of Iowans? With high percentages undecided and 60% aligned with a candidate but willing to change their mind, he has three weeks to try to capitalize on the message that he's the one to trust. And with significant baggage, that may be a hard sell.

Meanwhile, the pundit class is seemingly obsessed with the big bet between Perry and Romney. Romney had the right impulse in offering the $10,000 bet, attempting to demonstrate absolute certainty in his consistency on the individual mandate and slapping at Perry for suggesting otherwise. But he failed. For the average Iowan, $10,000 represents nearly a quarter of their annual salary. In tough economic times, when voters are searching for someone they trust with the public treasury, it was simply too much. But let's be clear that it's not a disqualifier for a candidate seeking to sell himself as the candidate who has spent his life in the private sector and understands how to make and manage money.

On the ground in Iowa, much of this may be moot. Romney is largely campaigning based on the residue of his ten million dollar 2008 campaign in the state. Gingrich opened his first campaign office in Iowa on Saturday. Both have taken to the airwaves (sometimes through affiliated groups), but their organizational efforts in Iowa have been weak. And in Iowa, organization wins the day.

Bachmann had a good night. She came in well-rehearsed, sounded a little stiff, but escaped unscathed. Since her win at the Ames straw poll, her numbers have fallen and her rivals didn't even pounce. At the other extreme is Rick Santorum, the nice guy. Everyone who meets him likes him, and his ideological consistency over the year is appealing to social conservatives across the state. But his niceness has kept him down. In the tea party era, quiet and consistent social conservativism isn't what it used to be. Voters want to see someone with a spark and enough edge to take on Obama. Significantly, his biggest applause line of the debate came when he defended Newt Gingrich.

The real story in Iowa is Ron Paul. The national media and long-time party faithful may want to ignore his campaign, but the latest Iowa poll has him running second behind Newt Gingrich, within the margin of error. His performance at the straw poll was impressive. Unlike Bachmann's straw poll win, putting her in the front runner position and drawing the requisite criticism front-runners usually witness, Ron Paul's near win positioned him perfectly. He has an organizational structure that his opponents have to envy, and his supporters are motivated and committed. Sure, the 76-year-old Paul is an unlikely person to generate this passion, but supporters love his outsider status, his willingness to take on the system, his unrehearsed style. Midwesterners pride themselves on their lack of pretentiousness -- they leave that for the coasts. Put simply, Paul seems authentic.

The question on everyone's mind appears to be whether Gingrich has the nomination in the proverbial bag. The simply answer is no. Gingrich is a lifetime politician with baggage to spare. His leadership in 1994 has reached almost mythical status among Republicans, but he's not the most disciplined of candidates, and having assumed the role of front-runner, he will now attract huge crowds and even bigger coordinated attacks from opponents. Having spent little time in the state until now, the vetting begins in the final weeks. That leaves a lot of possibilities for a quick fall.