Eight Votes in Iowa: Where the Race Goes from Here

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Lars Tunbjork for Time

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the stage with his wife Ann to address supporters at his Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2012.

When the bean counters finished tabulating the results from the 1,774 precincts that decide the Iowa caucuses, eight votes separated the victor, Mitt Romney (30,015) from the runner-up, Rick Santorum (30,007). Marvel at that for a moment. Eight votes out of more than 100,000. That is democracy. That’s Iowa. The Corn Bowl. Civic sport at its best. Caucusgoers crowded into church-basement corners and, for one glorious night, gave America what it wanted: a cuticle-gnawing contest worthy of prime time, even if the ultimate outcome will likely be as predictable as an afternoon soap.

Romney and Santorum finished the night with 24.6% and 24.5% of the vote, respectively, while Ron Paul claimed third with 21% and Newt Gingrich notched 13% in fourth. The turnout was close to 2008 levels, showing no swell of Tea Party vigor, and Romney’s finish wasn’t far off his performance there four years ago. But the expectations have been altered since then. And the giddiness of a 2 a.m. squeaker between Republican presidential candidates belies the state of the race after Iowa. Romney has emerged as the dominating favorite.

(PHOTOS: The Iowa Caucus in Two Minutes)

The caucus was so close that the finalists didn’t bother to wait for the last tally to speak to their supporters. “Game on,” Santorum said, beaming at the crowd that had gathered to hear him in Johnston, Iowa, almost as amazed as they were to see himself neck and neck with Romney at the heady heights of presidential politics. Santorum’s rocket ride to the top of the field in the final week of the Iowa campaign seemed to have left everyone disoriented, so the candidate used his caucus-night address to reintroduce himself to voters. “What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone,” he said. “A plan that says we will work together to get America to work.”

Romney did not disagree when he took the stage at his own celebration a short time later. “This has been a great victory for him and for his effort,” he said of Santorum. “He’s worked very hard in Iowa. We also feel it’s been a great victory for us here.” A magnanimous gesture. Here was confidence. Here was a winner. Romney, too, riffed from his stump speech, delivering a line so close to Santorum’s that the twin victors seemed for a moment like twin candidates. “I will go to work to get America back to work,” he said.

The close third, Paul, declared victory in the war of ideas, if not the caucuses. “Where we are very successful,” he told his ecstatic supporters, “is reintroducing some ideas Republicans needed for a long time.” Then, as often happens when Paul’s blood is stirred, his thoughts turned to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. “I’m looking forward to the day when we can say, ‘We’re all Austrians now,’ ” he said in an homage to Richard Nixon’s famous embrace of Keynes. It was, naturally, his biggest applause line.

(MORE: Q&A with Ron Paul, Iowa’s Third-Place Finisher)

If the photo finish failed to give reporters a clear winner to fawn over, the losers of the night were easy to pick out. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann put everything into Iowa, and their respective fifth- and sixth-place finishes all but sealed the end of their campaigns. Perry canceled plans to jet to South Carolina on Wednesday, choosing to return to Texas instead to “reassess.” “With a little prayer and a little reflection, I’m going to decide the best path forward,” he said on Tuesday night. Bachmann’s speech wasn’t as sober, but her prospects were just as dim, with her campaign manager expressing doubts in an Associated Press interview about whether she’d stay in the race. Influential Iowa Evangelical Bob Vander Plaats, a Santorum backer, urged her to drop out on Tuesday. “We love Michele Bachmann,” he said. “We love the issues she stands for. I just think the message is loud and clear tonight.”

The message was loud and clear for Gingrich as well. After turning every cheek in Iowa and paying dearly for it, Gingrich signaled on Tuesday night that he’s prepared to respond in kind to the negative ads that cut him to ribbons in recent weeks. He called Romney “a Massachusetts moderate managing decay,” and set a sharp tone for the next week of campaigning. He still insisted on decrying negative ads, but no amount of spin could mask Gingrich’s acid tone when he said he reserved the right to “tell the truth.” “If the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on [Romney’s] record than it is on politics,” he told supporters after the disappointing finish. “So this is going to be a debate that begins tomorrow morning in New Hampshire.”

(PHOTOS: Battle for Iowa: the Final Days of the Caucus Campaign in Photos)

There’s now a long week — one of the longest in politics — before the Granite State primary. Two debates, hours of TV ads and countless campaign events remain between the GOP field and the first proper primary of 2012. But the race there may be too far gone already for anyone but Romney to win. His lead is commanding, 26 points up on his nearest rival in a recent survey, and his operation well entrenched. Romney has lived in the state for much of the past three years — no, seriously, his house is in Wolfeboro — and given tens of thousands of dollars to the state’s GOP apparatus. John McCain, who won the state handily in 2000 and edged out Romney by 6 points in 2008, is lined up to endorse him on Wednesday. There have been New Hampshire surprises before — Pat Buchanan in ’96 comes to mind — but Romney has the hot hand to compliment his home-turf advantage. He will be difficult to overcome.

Paul is not pretending that he can win the state. A second-place finish would be “pretty good,” he told TIME (read the full interview). Santorum, hoping to capitalize on his Iowa momentum, will run ads and campaign there this week, but a primary is less volatile than a caucus, and there’s no social-conservative bloc to sling-shot him to overnight success. Jon Huntsman, who sat Iowa out, lies in wait there, but he’s still trying to clear the double-digit polling hump that has stymied his candidacy from its outset. Gingrich will be there too, and all four will run ads, among them some of the first to focus criticism on Romney alone. But it will only play prelude to South Carolina.

The Palmetto State is where the war for the nomination will be waged, conservatives’ last line of defense against Romney’s Establishment horde. The only scenario in which Romney loses the nomination is one where the anti-Mitt forces coalesce behind a single candidate. “The last thing Mitt Romney wants is to go one on one against Rick Santorum,” Vander Plaats bragged. It’s not implausible. Perry and Bachmann will likely drop out. Gingrich could too after New Hampshire. If Santorum can rally those candidates’ disparate backers to support him, he could give Romney problems in South Carolina. “It’s now or never for conservative voters,” Santorum wrote in a letter to supporters on Tuesday. “We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the GOP establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November.”

As before, Paul’s candidacy doesn’t fit neatly into these plans, or any plans of his party elders. His strong third-place finish in Iowa, army of near fanatical supporters and plump war chest will likely keep him in the race. He hopes to pick off caucuses in states that are off the beaten path to the nomination, making his delegate count and rowdy support something to reckon with at the convention. (His Iowa bronze was won with Democrats, independents, young people and genuinely excited volunteers; any Republican who doesn’t covet those groups is missing the big picture.) And Paul is just as prepared to bloody Santorum as he is Romney. His son, top surrogate and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, railed against “fair-weather conservatives” on Tuesday night, calling out “one of them, who’s rising in the polls right now” — Santorum — for “voting to double the size of the Department of Education.” When asked about Romney, Ron Paul tweaked his hawkish foreign policy but said he could endorse him in the general election nonetheless. “I like him, and I like the fact that he has a little bit better understanding of business than the rest of the candidates.”

Of course, Romney’s allies have no compunction about political warfare either. His Super PAC, with its evisceration of Gingrich now complete, will likely turn its millions of dollars in televised invective elsewhere. Santorum’s Iowa coup makes him a prime target. By the end of next week, television viewers in New Hampshire and South Carolina will likely know the name of Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican Senator whom Santorum endorsed not long before Specter switched parties, and every pork project he ever secured as a Senator. It’s not clear whether Santorum will have the resources to fight back, and even if he does, whether South Carolina is enough to stop the Romney juggernaut.

Beyond South Carolina lie further signposts of Romney’s strength. He’s already advertising in Florida. Nevada, a caucus state with a large Mormon population, will offer him friendly ground. His native state of Michigan is not far beyond that. Perhaps one of the most definitive signals is that Democratic operatives girding themselves for Obama’s re-election campaign mostly ignore other candidates altogether. Asked to comment on Tuesday night’s caucuses, former Obama spokesman Bill Burton, who now runs a Super PAC backing the President’s re-election, aimed nowhere else. “Despite Mitt Romney’s $14 million bet to win the Iowa caucuses by promising to eviscerate Medicare and implement a divisive immigration policy, he could do no better than limp to a pathetic finish that didn’t even beat his 2008 results,” he said. He was 1 point shy.

Since 1980, no candidate has secured a spot atop the Republican ticket without carrying South Carolina, the graybeards like to say. But taken together, Iowa and New Hampshire hold just as much predicative power. You have to go back to 1972, when Nixon allegedly sabotaged Ed Muskie in a wild Democratic primary that ultimately saw George Wallace shot and George McGovern victorious, to find a candidate from either party — Muskie in this case — who won Iowa and New Hampshire but failed to claim the nomination. Romney just won the former, and there’s every indication he’ll win the latter. Eight votes! Iowa delivered. What a start to the 2012 race it was. Even if it didn’t change anything.

— With reporting by Alex Altman / Johnston; Katy Steinmetz / Ankeny