In a race that wasn't settled until 2:30 AM EST, Mitt Romney emerged the victor of the Hawkeye Cauci (h/t Rush Limbaugh) by a mere 8 votes. 8. votes. To those who say their vote doesn't count, there is not a a more striking example of how wrong they are. Rick Santorum proved, ultimately, to be the real winner of the night, coming from nowhere to nearly win a race no one thought he stood a chance in.
The short term effect of this is to put the brakes on the Romney coronation, and give a window, albeit tiny, for conservatives to coalesce around an anti-Romney candidate. Based on news reports out this morning, that will be a tough challenge, with Gingrich and now Perry staying in the race, candidates who will likely continue to split the anti-Romney vote.
As Howard Fineman said last night on MSNBC, a wounded Newt Gingrich is more dangerous than a winning Newt Gingrich. His speech last night made crystal clear how furious he is at the negative carpet bombing campaign he was the recipient of via Mitt Romney's Super PAC, Restore Our Future. Gingrich could make life tough for Romney in the next few weeks at both the debates and in ads as he attempts to exact revenge.
Perry, who seemed like he was dropping out last night, Tweeted this morning that the next stop was South Carolina, leading many conservative observers to gripe that a 2008 scenario with a split conservative vote giving McCain the nomination was coming to fruition, again.
All of this muddies the short term, but long term nothing has changed unless Santorum or another non-Romney candidate can prove they have the fundraising and national organizational chops to compete. Romney spokesman Eric Fehnerstrom snarked that Santorum ran a great Gubernatorial campaign in Iowa, which has the ring of truth to it as Santorum held nearly 400 events in the Hawkeye State. He has virtually no staff in other states and had spent the last year practically camped out in Iowa.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee crushed Romney in Iowa by 9 points, but was never able to translate that momentum nationally, with a split conservative base and a lack of a national apparatus capable of translating the Iowa boost into a national campaign.
Based on last night, it sure seems like we're headed for a 2008 repeat…we just hope it doesn't repeat all the way until November.