Byron York has a tough read on the meaning of the Iowa result for Romney.
In the end, Romney escaped humiliation, and he did it at far less cost than in 2007-2008, when he gave Iowa everything he had in his first run for the GOP nomination. “If you look back four years ago, we had 52 paid staff in Iowa, and this time around, we have five paid staff,” top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said a few hours before Tuesday night’s results came in. “In terms of advertising, we spent $10 million in the run-up to the caucuses four years ago, and we’ve spent a fraction of that this time. And in terms of the candidate’s own appearances in Iowa, he was here 100 days or so four years ago, and this time we’re at about 15 days.” [It was actually a few more, but that doesn't change Fehrnstrom's point.]
So Romney avoided what would have been an embarrassing loss after his decision to go all-in in Iowa. But what now? He’s heavily favored to win in New Hampshire, but he’s likely to face a reconfigured field that will give his rivals the opportunity to pick up more support in the quest for a candidate to go up against Romney one-on-one. Iowa insiders predict that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who received ten and five percent of the Iowa vote, respectively, will be out of the race within 48 hours. Nationally, Bachmann and Perry are at a combined 12 percent in the polls — support that will go to some other candidate or candidates, but not to Romney. That will make Romney’s job 12 points harder.
The Iowa race ended far differently than Romney had originally foreseen. For a while he stayed away from the state for fear of suffering a humiliating loss. Then he moved into Iowa in hopes of winning and thereby dealing a devastating early blow to his rivals. Nothing turned out quite the way it was expected to, but in the end, Romney managed to get away with his life.
I’d turn that interpretation upside down.
Here’s a contest that by all odds Romney should have lost. The question through the past year was: lose to whom? This was a state designed for Rick Perry to take away from Romney–and thereby launch a powerful national conservative challenge. Instead, Perry is heading home to Texas. Gingrich–another, less plausible, alternative–has collapsed into bitterness and sulk. Romney won by a narrow margin because the remaining conservative alternatives looked unconvincing even to Iowa social conservative voters. A Romney-Santorum contest is not much of a contest at all. If that’s not obvious today, it will be obvious a week from today, after New Hampshire reports.