The big news out of Iowa is, well, nothing much. Mitt Romney is still the front-runner, and there’s a new flavor of the month (or week) nipping at his heels. If a challenger lower down the ladder wanted to jump a few rungs to become a contender, the Hawkeye State was the place to do it. That Mr. Romney pulled off a victory in this finicky contest, even by a few votes, means he has significant momentum that will be hard for any of his competitors to derail.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who came from nowhere to finish a strong second on Tuesday, has announced it’s “game on” to determine who will be his party’s standard-bearer. That’s not exactly the case. Just about every elephant in the race already has had a shot at the top spot to only be quickly passed over. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul all have had their brief flash in the pan as the leader in the polls.
It was simply Mr. Santorum’s turn to make a surge, but he needed to pull an upset win in Iowa to have any serious chance at becoming a threat to the front-runner. Even taking Iowa isn’t a guarantee of future success, as was shown by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, then-Sen. Bob Dole in 1988 and (at the time) former CIA Director George H.W. Bush in 1980. The fact that Iowa isn’t all that vital for establishing momentum and historically isn’t much of a bellwether for who eventually will be nominated doesn’t mean it’s not important. The caucuses there play a role by helping clarify who is not a serious candidate and thus clearing the field to get rid of the also-rans and has-beens. For example, Mrs. Bachmann decided to pull out after her sixth place finish on Tuesday.
At this stage in an election cycle, there are precious few opportunities left to make a big move. Insurgent candidates can pull upsets in New Hampshire, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2000 (when George W. Bush was already seen as the inevitable nominee), Pat Buchanan in 1996 (when Mr. Dole was the obvious establishment pick), or Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964 (when moderates were unsure about conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater), but it’s rare. Since 1952, New Hampshire Republicans have tapped the front-runner and eventual nominee in 12 of 15 (80 percent) primary elections. Mr. Romney, who served as governor in neighboring Massachusetts, is well known in the Granite State and enjoys a massive 29-point lead less than a week before the primary. Mr. Santorum is currently in fifth place with only 6 percent support in New Hampshire, according to a Suffolk University poll released Wednesday after the Iowa caucuses.
That leaves the South. If anyone is going to unseat Mr. Romney, this is the last chance. It’s also friendly turf for the challengers because the region is more conservative than the front-runner and parts of the important evangelical base are uncomfortable with Mr. Romney’s Mormonism. Mr. Perry, who finished fifth with 10 percent of the vote in Iowa, has announced he’s still in the race at least until the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, which falls just 10 days before the weighty Florida primary. The logic is that there might yet be a chance for a candidate from the right - especially a southerner - to start a rebellion against Mr. Romney - a northerner - in the Palmetto State, the first to secede from the Union before the Civil War. This is an appropriate field of battle for a last stand by Mr. Gingrich, who is from neighboring Georgia.
Concocting alternate endings to this GOP race takes imagination, however. The most pressing questions coming out of Iowa are how long it will take for the Republican masses to figure out that Mitt Romney is likely to be their candidate, and how will the base react to that. It’s imperative for conservatives to make the most of the situation and not isolate the man who is likely to be the next Republican president of the United States. Movement conservatives have a tendency to shoot themselves in the feet by making the perfect the enemy of the good and harboring a mild resistance to working in the real world of politics, which necessitates some give and take. It’s time to start thinking about and coming to grips with reality, which is that Mr. Romney could be a good president. Chances are the Grand Old Party will gain an even larger majority in the House of Representatives and control of the Senate in this year’s election. This would deliver conservative legislation from Capitol Hill that Mr. Romney would undoubtedly sign.
Skeptical conservatives aren’t all wrong when they gripe that the party establishment inside the Beltway is too quick to sacrifice principle for political expediency, which often doesn’t work. The tantamount truth, however, is that winning elections with the best possible candidate is the ultimate goal. Mr. Romney is the only Republican beating President Obama in the polls. It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve his lead: He ran four years ago and dutifully backed the nominee who beat him; he has performed well in an interminable number of GOP candidate debates; and he has steadily maintained a position in the top two spots in a field of very experienced, articulate primary opponents. Mr. Romney could do himself a big favor and pick a red-meat running mate to put conservatives at ease and unify the party. Then, Republicans should all be on board. What’s the alternative? To sit it out and let Barack Obama have a second term?
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).