So the results are in and tomorrow we will start to see the consequences.
First, the results:
• Romney: 30,015 votes - 25 percent
• Santorum: 30,007 votes - 25 percent
• Paul: 26,219 votes - 22 percent
• Gingrich: 16,251 votes - 14 percent
• Perry: 12,604 votes - 11 percent
• Bachmann: 6,073 votes - 5 percent
• Huntsman: 745 votes - 1 percent
And now, and perhaps more important than the results themselves, come the consequences of these results. Before the Iowa caucuses, it's like the NFL preseason. You try to predict what your team is going to do based on how they look on paper; you look at stats, player performances, team chemistry, coaches, and you hope and dream about meeting expectations or beating them. Now that the Iowa caucuses are in the rearview mirror, we've officially entered the regular season -- and all of those preseason expectations get put to the test. (And you Perry supporters now appreciate what it's like to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan when it comes to the disappointment between how you look on paper and how you perform in the regular season.)
The caucuses give everyone a chance to see how individual candidates perform in an actual election -- not a debate, a straw poll, an interview, or fundraising, but a real world exercise -- to prove who can bring people to the polls. Watching this most closely, of course, are the media, political junkies, and especially the candidates themselves and their political operatives.
The results of the caucuses give the campaigns the first chance to probe the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, to "review the game film," in NFL parlance. Unlike the NFL, where teams play a different team almost every week, these candidates will go head-to-head with each other perhaps through the summer. The formidable operatives working for each candidate will go right to work to exploit their weaknesses and co-opt the strengths of their opponents and all of them will attack the leader.
And the macro result from tonight's vote is straightforward: Mitt Romney is the clear and legitimate front-runner -- still. The bad news for team Romney is after millions of dollars, hours and efforts, there is no bump, wave or breakout for Romney after finishing first -- still. Just one-quarter of Iowa voters actually supported him; in fact, ABC News reports that he gained just three votes over his 2008 total. Santorum is clearly the latest "anyone but Romney" candidate, and Paul has proven once again that he can turn out the Iowa voters but has yet to demonstrate any ability beyond Iowa.
For Romney's opponents, the consequence is they are back at the beginning. The state of play is in some ways unchanged since the first Republican debate on May 5, 2011. All the candidates are going to be focused on breaking down Mitt Romney as the contest rolls forward.
So here is the big problem for Romney, and the Republicans: Romney has to fight a four-front war. The first front is the next stop on the primary trail, New Hampshire, where he is almost already the presumed winner and will get zero credit when he does win. In fact, if Santorum moves out of single digits (he's currently polling at 6 percent, but can obviously expect momentum coming out of Iowa), it could be framed as another symbolic victory for his campaign. (Think about Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" performance in 1992.) The other Republicans can attack Romney at will in New Hampshire; in fact, most of the remaining field (with the exception of ultra long shot Jon Huntsman) has effectively conceded the state to Romney so they can attack with nothing to lose.
Second front: South Carolina. Santorum, Gingrich, and others in the race will hit hard on Romney's record as a moderate, health care providing abortion-on-demand flip flopper. (Political veterans will remember the similar strategy that Bush the 2nd deployed with success against Senator McCain in South Carolina in 2000.)
The third front is the Obama campaign, which will continue its hyper-focused daily and highly effective assault on Romney's record.
The fourth front may be the most exciting to watch and in some ways the most consequential: it is the angry Newt Gingrich. Former Speaker Gingrich had the lead in Iowa only 30 days ago, but the first onslaught of Super PAC money from Romney cronies did him in; at least, that's what he believes. On CBS the morning of the caucuses, Gingrich unequivocally called Romney "a liar," and his campaign told NBC's Andrea Mitchell that Romney can expect to have a target on his back in New Hampshire. His speech in Iowa last night showed every sign that he plans to turn into a man on a mission and open up a "can of whoop ass" to undo Romney. He will have plenty of chances, including paid advertising, free media and six live debates between today and the voting in South Carolina. The Republican front runner is about to feel the wrath of the attack dog his own party cultivated in the 1980's and 90's. So much for the Reagan Doctrine of never speaking ill of another Republican.
Will Romney be able to conduct a campaign fighting on four fronts, and ultimately take the presidency? I don't think so. Let's see if he can take a punch as well as his "independent" Super PAC can throw one.