Santorum Beats Truman

After last night's unprecedented near-tie in the Iowa Republican caucuses, it's easy to think that the GOP nomination contest is somehow up in the air. After all, the two top candidates in last night's election—former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—are very different brands of Republicans. Mitt Romney is a well-heeled, patrician creature of the establishment, who—after almost a decade of planning—is the "next man in line" for the nomination. Rick Santorum, by contrast, is an unpopular former lawmaker who lost his last election in a colossal landslide and was on his way to renewed obscurity until his surge in Iowa.

If Santorum can tie Romney for the first-place spot in Iowa—despite Romney's tens of millions of dollars and two separate presidential campaigns—then who knows what could happen in New Hampshire or South Carolina, the next two contests.

But the truth is that this race is still as volatile as it was before the Iowa caucuses, which is to say, not very volatile at all. Romney is still the overwhelming favorite in New Hampshire, where he maintains a huge lead over all of his competitors. What's more, Romney is the only candidate with the infrastructure and resources necessary to run a national campaign. And while you can imagine a scenario in which Santorum (or someone else) emerges with a campaign capable of competing nationally, it remains unlikely if you consider the degree to which the Republican establishment has all but pledged itself to Romney. Indeed, the former governor leads each of his competitors in endorsements and support from figures across the Republican Party.

Yes, conservatives aren't happy with Romney, and yes, there is a significant anti-Romney wing of the Republican Party (though, as Iowa demonstrates, this is a little overstated). But those Republicans have failed to muster a viable challenger, and time is ticking. More important, where's the bulwark? You could point to South Carolina as the place where conservatives make their stand, but to do so, you have to ignore the fact that when push comes to shove, South Carolina Republicans are most inclined to support the establishment. It was true in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, in 1988 with George H.W. Bush, in 1996 with Bob Dole, in 2000 with George W. Bush, and in 2008 with John McCain. Given the extent to which the results and momentum of New Hampshire affect the outcome in South Carolina, it's not hard to imagine a world in which Romney walks away with first place in the Palmetto State.

At the moment, it's not even clear that Romney will face competition in South Carolina. Along with Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum will move to bolster his position in New Hampshire, and Rick Perry—who seems well-suited to the state—has returned to Texas to "re-evaluate" his campaign. But Gingrich is in free fall, and Santorum hasn't shown that he can challenge the Romney juggernaut. I'm in South Carolina ready to hit the trail, but odds are very good that we'll reach the South Carolina primary with a presumptive nominee already in tow.

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