Iowa's Republicans did accomplish something with the endless run-up to their exciting, symbolically important, but practically meaningless caucuses this week. The combination of a long campaign and dozens of debates did serve Iowa's traditional purpose of eliminating candidates not ready for the marathon ahead. Cain, Bachmann, and Pawlenty were winnowed out, with Perry and Gingrich's runs probably permanently crippled. These are good things.
Still, the anti-Romney forces in Iowa had a very long time, reviewed several potential options, and the one they ended up choosing was....Rick Santorum? Sanctimonious P. Rick?
This has to be one of the worst ideas for a major party Presidential contender in history. As Larry Sabato pointed out today, Santorum's defeat in 2006 by Bob Casey was historically bad; the 17+ percent margin was the second-worst defeat by an incumbent Senator in two decades.
It's not just that his political positions are odious, though they clearly are. His manner is off-putting, a combination of arrogance, prudery, and whininess that is going to be very unpopular once people get to know him. He affects a stance of moral superiority, yet his ethics are demonstrably defective. He has extreme positions on social issues--about which most Americans are tired of fighting--and nothing useful to say about economic issues, the ones for which Americans truly hunger for ideas. Foreign/military policy? He claims expertise, but again has little to say.
I've held off from condemning his candidacy because his level of support was nonexistent; I mistakenly thought he was going nowhere fast. With his win (I think the recount may show that, instead of losing by 8 votes, he actually won, though the count is just a popularity contest with no delegate implications), he will gain some additional support, some money, but he has no organization, no natural base, no plan. And he's the one who's supposed to stop Mitt Romney?
Gingrich went to New Hampshire for the purpose of going after Romney one more time; I see him dropping out and endorsing Santorum before South Carolina votes. Rick Perry is skipping NH but has decided to contest SC--some claim it is to help Romney, which it will do, nominally (though he won't get many votes). I don't think he has anything that complicated in mind; he's just never lost an election before and doesn't know that once you get beaten, you stay beaten. Huntsman still hasn't given moderates a credible reason why they should choose him, and there aren't that many of them left in the party, anyway.
So, it will quickly boil down to Ron Paul, Romney, and Santorum, as long as he lasts. If Romney wins SC, Florida and Nevada will follow and it will be over quickly. If Santorum can somehow win SC, though, or yield to someone who can (though I don't know who--Huckabee?), it could go on for awhile. But I think that the Iowa result basically has put Romney onto a path to the nomination that he would have trouble losing.