WASHINGTON -- In the end, it was a surprise that it wasn’t a surprise: Iowa Republicans, most of whom are evangelical Christians, chose an evangelical Christian as their man: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
At the same time, the plain-spoken and sensible voters of the state also plucked a new star out of the crowd: the comparatively moderate and photogenic young senator from Florida, Marco Rubio.
Cruz showed in Iowa that he could take a punch from Donald Trump. And Rubio showed that he could sneak up on the other two with charisma, charm and a sense of optimism.
As a result, Republicans are looking at a three-way race in which two first-term senators in their mid-40s -- representatives of a new generation of conservative Republicans -- are preparing to grind the 69-year-old billionaire between them.
Confident of the outcome, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told The Huffington Post before the tally that the campaign was in great shape, well funded and well organized for the long haul.
Ironically, Cruz’s Iowa victory was made more impressive by the serious effort that Trump devoted at the end to Iowa.
With his trademark insulting, insinuating style, Trump went after Cruz personally and viciously, calling him a loser, a loner and -- worst of all, apparently, at least to the Donald -- a Canadian.
Trump, a political novice with an evidently poor field organization (a no-no in Iowa), may have hurt himself at the last minute by declining to take part in a debate on Fox News because he didn’t like one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly.
Cruz marshaled the always-crucial evangelical vote in Iowa in a way never seen before, housing volunteers in dormitories and sending out official-looking “notices” to remind evangelicals of their “duty” to vote -- and vote for Cruz.
In that sense, Cruz is the evangelical, hard-core anti-government mirror image of Barack Obama in Iowa eight years ago: a superbly organized, young first-term senator.
Rubio adopted a sunnier version of the Trump charisma approach, hitting the big cities and moderate suburbs with an upbeat message that stressed his immigrant son’s narrative rather than Trump’s dark xenophobia and racism.
Finishing a close third to Cruz and Trump in Iowa, Rubio and his shrewd spinners got their candidate in front of the national TV cameras to declare victory of a sort in prime time.
And now what?
Iowa Republicans have a bad record of picking the eventual winner. Among their losing choices have been George H.W. Bush in 1980, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.
The latter two also depended heavily on evangelical votes, but could not expand outward from that early religious base to win the nomination.
Cruz will have a hard time doing well in New Hampshire next week, in part because all of the non-Trump attention will be focused on Rubio, who is now the unofficial -- but really official -- candidate of a Republican establishment that fears Trump on the issues and despises Cruz personally.
That sets up the South Carolina Republican primary, on Feb. 20, as the pivotal contest, assuming -- and it is no safe assumption -- that Trump is able to maintain his lead in New Hampshire.
The fortunes of candidates can change radically in the eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire -- and there is no guarantee of victory for Trump, now that he's lost his aura of what one pundit called his “winningness.” His first actual fight was a loss -- and one that came after polls had predicted he’d win.
While Cruz follows in the footsteps of faith-based losers Huckabee and Santorum, he is a far more formidable figure than either one -- and has to be counted as a front-runner as much as anyone else in the race at this point.
First, he is superbly well funded, which neither of his predecessors were. He has the backing of major Wall Street and Silicon Valley billionaires, who can not only give to his independent PACS, but who can -- and have -- provided data-intensive savvy, staff and computer resources.
Second, Cruz’s intellectual wherewithal is second to none in politics today. He's a Princeton and Harvard-trained constitutional lawyer steeped from childhood in conservative philosophy.
Third, the GOP primary schedule is set up to Cruz’s advantage, with a series of contests starting on March 1 that are “winner take more” or “winner take all” -- and many of them are in Southern and border states that are natural targets for Cruz.
One of them is his home state of Texas on March 1 -- with a huge cache of delegates that Cruz is likely to sweep.
As for Rubio, his main calling card, besides his youthful charm, is the voters’ apparent view of him as the candidate most likely to bring a Republican presidential victory in November.
Network entrance pollsters asked GOP voters which candidate they thought had the best chance of winning the White House. The results: Rubio 43 percent, Trump 26 percent, Cruz 21 percent.
To be sure, the GOP "establishment," such as it is, didn't have a good night among sensible Iowans. Well more than half of Republican voters there supported candidates (Cruz, Trump and Ben Carson) who espouse obnoxious and even racist proposals: to bar Muslims from entering the country, repatriate 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall across the southern border.
After finishing second, Trump vowed to win New Hampshire and the nomination. But there is a very real chance that he could get ground up in a contest between the two younger men -- one a doctrinaire hard-liner with no track record of ever working with Democrats (Cruz), the other an all-things-to-many-people charmer who worked with Democrats in Florida and in Washington.
Trump was supposed to be the “meteor that destroyed politics.” But now, he is just another candidate, and that is good news for both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio -- and for America.
A note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.