Closing The Deal
After a dramatic, confusing night of suspense in the Republican Party's Iowa caucuses, the big winner may well have been a Democrat: Barack Obama.
The president's re-election campaign had reason to smile early Wednesday, as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled to a virtual dead heat in the caucuses that kicked off the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, emerges from Iowa with his front-runner status intact, his well-funded campaign ready for a months-long fight.
But his razor-thin margin over Santorum — a social conservative who ran a low-budget campaign with little advertising — reinforces persistent doubts about Romney's ability to win over his party's conservative base.
It also increases the chances that Romney's still-likely march to the Republican nomination will not be the quick kill Romney has hoped for, analysts and strategists said on Wednesday.
For an Obama campaign that has long operated on the assumption that it will face Romney in the Nov. 6 election, that is good news.
"Democratic heavyweights are quietly celebrating tonight," David Gergen, a former adviser to two Republican and two Democratic presidents, told Reuters. "They see the presumed (Republican) nominee, Mitt Romney, unable to close the deal and a Republican electorate not only uncertain, but lacking great enthusiasm."
As Romney continues to tussle with Republican foes in upcoming primaries, Gergen said, "Obama's campaign — which otherwise might be in trouble" amid concerns about the economy and government spending — "has time to raise money and hone its message."
For Romney, the good news in Iowa was that the two candidates who seemed in best position to carry out a long campaign against him — Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry — did not get a boost from the caucuses.
Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, finished fourth and leaves Iowa stewing over seeing his status atop public opinion polls toppled by biting TV ads put out by an independent group that supports Romney.
Starting with the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10 and continuing on to contests in South Carolina and Florida, Gingrich has vowed to cast Romney as too moderate for most Republican voters.
Romney is heavily favored to win in New Hampshire, but Gingrich has led recent polls in South Carolina and Florida.
Perry, the Texas governor, stumbled to a fifth-place finish in Iowa and is returning home to "assess" his campaign.
A key question now is whether Santorum, who has little national campaign structure or money after making Iowa the focus of his effort, can turn himself into a nationally appealing, anti-Romney alternative for conservative voters.
Santorum, who peppers his speeches with religious and anti-abortion references, will also have to prove that he can stretch his appeal beyond the most conservative elements of the Republican Party.
From Romney's view, analysts said, the question will be whether conservative Republican primary voters remain divided between his rival candidates — which he would welcome — or one main challenger emerges.
"What comes out of Iowa is not a clear picture," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. "Romney is a guy who got 25 percent of the vote four years ago. There is a lot of incentive for the (other Republicans) to keep going."
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