DES MOINES, IOWA—The event was already running behind schedule when Chuck Laudner made his way to the front corner of the Pizza Ranch restaurant in Boone, Iowa. He struggled to kill time as Rick Santorum struggled to reach the podium. Over the past weeks, Laudner, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, had been introducing the onetime Pennsylvania senator across the state. At first it was at small gatherings little noticed by the media. But that transformed overnight. On Monday, a crowd filled every inch of floor space, forcing Santorum to slowly trudge to the front, handshake by handshake.
Laudner reiterated his standard pitch. "Tomorrow night at about seven o'clock, Iowans are going to gather," he said. "They're going to take two votes. At the beginning of the night, they're going to take a vote and tell the world who they think the next president should be. By the end of the caucus, they're going to take votes on all of those platform planks that create all of the things we stand for: life, family, American sovereignty, constituting limited government. It was my desire when I jumped on board this campaign to make those two votes match."
Laudner is right. The Iowa caucuses aren't just about winnowing the presidential field; they're meant to define the soul of the party—and its platform—ahead of the general election. Yesterday's results achieved the first goal, excluding the crop of candidates—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich—unprepared to wage a national campaign. But the party's soul remains in limbo. The final days of caucus campaigning revealed a divided party. The devil's deal between fiscal and social conservatives that had helped advance each faction's agenda is starting to disintegrate.
Last night counts as a loss for Mitt Romney. He might have gathered an eight-vote lead to finish ahead of Santorum, but that's six votes fewer than in 2008, a year when 4,000 fewer Iowans turned out for the GOP caucuses and Romney faced a challenging field of competitors. But Romney still remains the inevitable nominee. Santorum and Ron Paul lack the infrastructure, financial resources, and broad appeal to fight for the nomination past the first several contests. For all the hand-wringing, the invisible primary of party elites should once again select the nominee, handing it to Romney.
This should be welcome news to any voter with the slightest interest in effective government. With the ascent of the Tea Party, the GOP has operated as a redoubt for fanatics more willing to watch the country burn than to stray from their ideology (remember the debt-ceiling fiasco?). Romney's no moderate, but he's not entirely off his rocker. He may want to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent, but unlike Rick Perry, he isn't advocating turning Congress into a part-time body; he might appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, but unlike Newt Gingrich, he wouldn't just ignore court rulings he didn't like.
But Romney's support in Iowa has little to do with his views on policy. He has refrained from any hint of policy discussion during stump speeches and town halls and makes no effort to hide that fact. "I don't think I've spent a lot of time trying to describe differences on policy in detail between myself and the other candidates," Romney said at a press conference Sunday in Atlantic. "But instead I've focused on the things I believe in and the choices Americans have to make." At events in Iowa, Romney supporters primarily tout their candidate's ability to win the general election or offer a vague explanation about how Romney's business experience would help him in the White House.
Romney has classed down to appeal to the typical suburban voter, cracking jokes about the failed Kardashian marriage as if he were in the checkout line glancing through a copy of US Weekly. He's distanced himself from his Wall Street-banker persona, appearing at stops in shirtsleeves and jeans and throwing on an "aw shucks, you really like me" smile anytime the crowd laughs or applauds. He frequently recounts how his father would pile the Romney clan into the family Rambler—his father was, after all, "a guy who made Ramblers," though as CEO of the company, he probably had little to do with their production—for road trips across the country. The closest Romney ever got to substance was when he trashed Barack Obama for "taking cues from Europe" on economic issues, but Romney refrained from detailing which cues he wouldn't take.
But Romney's shtick might not be enough. The national audience that tuned in yesterday saw a vastly different Rick Santorum than the social crusader Dan Savage nearly destroyed on Google. After praising God for his caucus victory, Santorum reprised a version of the stump speech he's been using on the Iowa campaign trail: He lamented the struggles faced by low-skill workers, whom he wants to help by putting more money into their bosses' pockets. Santorum also said he is the only Republican who can win the Midwestern swing states—excluding Illinois, he is always quick to mention—that may determine the general election next fall.
But much as the electability argument conveniently ignores the fact that Santorum lost his last campaign by 18 percent, the populist veneer is just a façade for the social conservatism Santorum has long espoused. It's a persona he has tried to distance himself from, but it emerges in the Q&A portion of campaign events, during which Santorum claims to be the most committed pro-life candidate and condemns same-sex marriage. In Iowa's small communities, Santorum's comments on these issues drew the most nods and murmured "amens."
At a stop in Marshalltown last Saturday, Santorum name-checked all the social conservative issues. He claimed that "as the family breaks down, we have to build more prisons," credited the importance of homeschooling over government-managed education, and claimed that the best strategy for lifting people out of poverty was to encourage marriage. The next day, he rolled out this gem of a line, appealing to the grassroots base that sees liberal political correctness as stamping out their views: "Diversity creates conflict. If we celebrate diversity, we create conflict."
At heart, fear of change is what drives support for Santorum. Even the candidate's concern about manufacturing jobs being outsourced turns out to be rooted in a desire to keep rural, conservative ideals alive. "Small-town America is where manufacturing is. You see some but not many manufacturers in the big cities, the center city areas. You don't see them in suburban areas—they don't want them there," Santorum told a crowd in Newton on Monday. "Who wants them? You folks do. If you go around Iowa—and I did—almost every little town in Iowa had some sort of manufacturer that made that town what it was, and far too many of them aren't what they were anymore."