Of all the bizarre aspects of the Republican presidential race—and they have been gloriously plentiful—nothing has been odder than the kid-glove treatment accorded the likeliest nominee. While every other pretender, from Donald Trump to Rick Santorum, has had his record and rhetoric parsed and pilloried, Mitt Romney has sailed through months (heck, years) of campaigning and oodles of debates without so much as a nick or scratch. Until now. Sunday’s New Hampshire debate featured memorable smackdowns by Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich.
The non-Romney Republicans had ten hours to stew over their abject failure to lay a glove on the Mittster in Saturday night’s lackluster prime-time debate. Nudged on Sunday morning by moderator David Gregory, who launched the proceedings by asking the aggrieved Newt Gingrich to make an argument against Romney’s electability, they came out with guns blazing at the Meet the Press debate. But it was almost certainly too little, too late, to bring down the frontrunner.
The most important number on Tuesday night in Iowa wasn’t eight—the miniscule margin by which Mitt Romney edged out Rick Santorum for first place. It was 3,255—the negligible estimated increase in turnout over the 2008 GOP caucuses. Given the sizable number of independents —23 percent of the total—who showed up to (mostly) vote for third-place finisher Ron Paul, it looks like fewer Iowa Republicans actually voted this year.
Four years ago in Iowa, Barack Obama had a terrific night in the Democratic caucuses. Four years later, he had another one in the Republican caucuses.
Mitt Romney had hoped to swoop into Iowa, fatally kneecap Newt Gingrich, initiate a clean sweep of the early Republican contests—and then start repositioning himself back toward the middle for a general-election battle with the president.
To quote Rick Perry, who suspended his campaign after a fifth-place finish yesterday: “Oops.”
Since when did Mitt Romney turn into a jovial, wise-cracking sort? Well, ever since it became apparent that his chief rivals in the Iowa caucuses would almost surely be Congressman Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum, who probably stand about the same chance as Kim Kardashian or Dominique Strauss-Kahn of winning the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, the only two candidates Romney’s people have worried about, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, could be left in the shadows after tomorrow night, relegated to making their final stands in South Carolina on January 21. At least that’s what the latest polls from Iowa say.