Less than 24 hours before the Iowa caucuses got under way, Mitt Romney, paragon of discipline, stood among empty oil drums and rusting tools in a Marion asphalt plant and let himself get a little carried away. “We’re going to win this thing!” he declared to a cheering throng. His staff scrambled to tamp down this impromptu bit of expectations-setting. But his elation was understandable. The growing crowds validated his last-minute decision to compete all out in a state that four years earlier had spurned him, and he sensed a big win coming. And while his eight-vote squeaker didn’t provide the decisive margin he would have preferred, Romney still looks to have a clear path to the Republican nomination.
His win is impressive in two regards: In a state famous for the influence of its social conservatives, he finished ahead of Rick Santorum, the candidate best positioned to benefit from their support; and after two years during which the small-government, antitax activists of the Tea Party shaped the contours of Republican politics—and ended the careers of several distinguished Establishment politicians—he beat Ron Paul, the Tea Party’s godfather and tireless exemplar of its passions. And he did so with little jeopardy to his broader appeal.
Romney’s achievement was not only to finish first in Iowa but also to maintain a comparatively moderate presentation. At no point was he compelled, as were other candidates, to propose sweeping, upwardly redistributive transformations of the tax code or radical assaults on government. By resisting the temptation to ostentatiously curry favor with the extreme right, he has preserved his greatest asset for the coming campaign: his electability.
It’s hard to imagine Romney not ending up as the challenger to Barack Obama, even if large portions of the party faithful still yearn for someone else. Santorum’s improbable rise is proof of that, and his comeback ensures the former senator a cycle or two of rapturous media attention. Yet neither Santorum nor anyone else appears capable of passing the basic threshold for legitimacy beyond the early primaries: a national organization, piles of money, and plausibility in the minds of those voters not already resigned to Romney.
Democrats will continue to portray Romney as a rapacious and uncaring standard bearer of the 1 percent. But they’ll have a harder time making this stick if he is able to maintain a set of positions more targeted toward the middle class than any of his rivals’. (His only dangerous concession to the right was demagoguing the issue of illegal immigration, which effectively knee-capped Rick Perry but risks alienating Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.)
Unlike Perry and Herman Cain, who proposed versions of a flat tax, Romney seeks simply to extend the Bush marginal income tax cuts. He would drop the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent; other candidates would drop it further. He’d eliminate taxes on savings, dividends, and capital gains, but only for those earning less than $200,000. Newt Gingrich would eliminate them for everyone.
One reason Romney doesn’t go as far as his rivals is the impact their cuts would have on the deficit. Much of what the others proposed is pure fantasy. “From our perspective, we believe that what we’re laying out during the campaign is a blueprint for governing,” says Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director. Such restraint is probably wise, although Romney won’t specify how he’ll pay for his cuts until he’s secured the nomination. It’s worth noting that his economic policies, while hardly onerous to the rich, wouldn’t bring nearly the windfall that Gingrich’s would, thus making it harder to paint him as being preoccupied with the well-being of the already very well off.
All of which suggests that Democrats can no longer count on facing a Republican nominee damaged by months of internecine combat. In fact, far from weakening Romney’s prospects in November, the slog to the nomination could make them stronger.
Iowa’s significance is often downplayed, typically because its culture and economy are said to be too homogeneous to reliably predict how the rest of the country might respond to a candidate. That assumption may be outdated. “Iowa suffered in the farm crisis in the 1980s, and since then we’ve diversified our economy,” says Jim Kurtenbach, a partner at Prairie Oak Capital, a Des Moines private equity and venture capital firm, and a former state Republican co-chair who supports Romney. “We’re not just an ag state anymore. We have people affected by virtually every area of the economy.” The national fixation on jobs and budget restraint, says Kurtenbach, plays to Romney’s standing as a businessman.
Romney appears to grasp this in a way that he didn’t last time. One of the few specific promises he makes in a stump speech otherwise devoted to criticizing President Obama and ardently declaring his own patriotism is that he’ll bring his consultant’s skills to bear on the federal budget. “We’ll take all the programs the federal government has and ask which is so critical that we have to keep them,” he told a Monday evening crowd in Clive, Iowa. “On that basis we’re going to get rid of some programs—even ones we like.” He cited Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts, and public television as falling short of that measure. “We’re going to have Big Bird [rely on] advertising, because I don’t want to borrow money from China to pay for him.”
Culturally, this sort of talk appeals to small-government conservatives, while also reminding them of his business background. But most of his cuts are actually quite modest, and therefore more palatable to independents and moderates, compared with what his Republican opponents have proposed. Paul vows to abolish five departments (Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior) and slash $1 trillion from the budget right away—actions that would send most Americans into paroxysms if they understood the consequences. If Romney can continue to persuade conservatives that he’s committed to their cause without having to embrace anything too dramatic, he’ll be much better positioned to survive Democratic attacks.
One way to think of the Republican primary season is as a detoxification process that will purge the birthers and demagogues and probably end with Romney as the nominee. This naturally engenders some resistance. Entrance polls Tuesday night revealed that voters who sought a true conservative went 36 percent to Santorum and only 1 percent to Romney. Even as they delivered his victory, Iowans seemed only grudgingly willing to go along. Yet many voters went into the caucuses with more on their minds than ideological purity. The final Des Moines Register poll provided a good glimpse of this: It showed that Paul was widely recognized as the most consistent candidate (35 percent) and the likeliest to reduce spending and foreign aid dramatically (61 percent). Santorum, who logged more time in Iowa than any other candidate, was thought to relate best to ordinary Iowans, along with Paul, who also spent a great deal of time there. Romney, at 48 percent, was decisively viewed as the most electable. In the end, the prospect of defeating Obama will likely bring most conservatives around to his side.
This does not mean that Santorum and Paul will soon disappear. Both could go on to play a significant role in the campaign—and possibly beyond. Santorum ultimately managed to consolidate the support of Iowa’s evangelical Christians by combining his deep religious faith with a credible assurance that he would be up to the job of governing—an assurance that Michele Bachmann, Gingrich, and Perry could not deliver. He also elicited the kind of passion that remains essential to a Republican candidate, even amid a grinding recession when social issues are forced to take a back seat.
Now that Santorum has demonstrated his appeal, it’s possible that Romney could emulate Barack Obama—not that he’d put it that way—by choosing a Senate veteran as his running mate. Santorum’s name alongside his would reassure many conservative Romney skeptics that he’ll keep to the rightward path. And as Joe Biden did for Obama, Santorum could do for Romney. Santorum’s ethnic blue-collar background and Rust Belt roots—he’s the grandson of a coal miner and the son of Italian immigrants, and once represented a Western Pennsylvania steel district—would help Romney appeal to a region, and a socioeconomic class, otherwise difficult for a private equity baron to reach. In the Senate, Santorum’s devout Catholicism led him to become an advocate for the poor—unusual among congressional Republicans and a helpful counterbalance to perceptions of Romney’s elitism.
Paul stands to wield an altogether different kind of influence, should he be so inclined. To him, more than any other candidate, Romney’s ascension would rebuke the causes to which he has devoted a lifetime: the radical downsizing of the federal government, modesty abroad, and a reordering of prevailing economic powers such as the Federal Reserve Board and Wall Street. Asked by a television reporter in Iowa if he could envision himself in the White House, Paul candidly admitted that he could not, but hastened to add that this had never been his goal. What he’s sought instead, he replied, is to project his influence.
Presumably, that task will take on greater urgency if Romney reaches the nomination by his current, moderate path. By embarking on a third-party candidacy, Paul, who has already announced his retirement from Congress, could force Romney to the right or else risk losing the conservative support he’ll need to get to the White House. What would Paul have to lose?
Either way, Romney will soon face a much bigger test. His anticipated victory over a weak field, while necessary, ultimately doesn’t prove much. Romney has performed ably, but vanquishing a bunch of featherweights who lack the resources to fight back is not the same as defeating a sitting President potentially armed with $1 billion in campaign cash. To win against Obama, Romney will need to do more than play it safe, or the White House will remain a dream and not his destiny.