As I followed the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, I could not help but wonder why I was bothering.
After all, I could have had the TV tuned into a re-run of “How I Met Your Mother” or some other bit of visual fluff that was far more entertaining than following entrance polls, reading countywide results, watching the networks or watching Current TV watching the other networks and reporting what they had already reported (what was that all about?).
By this past weekend, it was clear that Romney, Santorum, and Paul would exit the state, each able to claim some piece of victory. The three would have their respective tickets punched to New Hampshire —where Romney has things pretty well wired for a win— and then hit the first, really important primary state - South Carolina.
But then, as I listened to Newt Gingrich’s concession speech, I began to think that maybe the night wasn’t such a waste of time after all.
Never before had I heard a primary election candidate so angry that he all but committed in writing to block and tackle for Rick Santorum in New Hampshire and, possibly, beyond. It was a remarkable display of something we rarely see in American politics - a kamikaze effort to take down Mitt Romney at any cost, including Newt’s own candidacy.
Newt isn’t stupid. He realizes that with Romney in the race and his fifteen minutes of being the anti-Romney behind him, his only chance to gain the nomination is to get rid of the Massachusetts governor and then worry about who is left in the field to battle.
To be sure, Newt’s speech was fun - but it was not until the final act of the evening that the time invested really began to pay off. As I listened to the victory speeches offered up by Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney , I realized that I was very glad that I had played the game.
With the two speeches coming one right after the other, the contrasts were extraordinary. One was soulful and searing while the other was boring and barren— a canned repetition of the candidate’s stump speech. One emotionally spoke of his grandfather’s arrival in this country while the other was peddling the same old pitch. Of course, Romney could hardly discuss his own family lineage, which includes his great-grandfather’s emigration from the United States to Mexico to avoid American anti-polygamy laws. Indeed, while Rick Santorum’s grandfather came to these shores to find freedom and opportunity, Romney’s grandfather returned to the United States to avoid the Mexican Revolution.
The bottom line was that Rick Santorum blew me away while Mitt Romney blew the chance to shine—assuming he is capable of doing so.
Now, please don’t imagine that I’ve been so carried off by the moment that I’ve forgotten who Rick Santorum is.
I know Santorum is an extremist who would outlaw contraception if he could. I know that, if given the chance, he would put doctors in jail for performing abortions. I know that he has compared homosexuality to “man on dog” sex. I know that a President Santorum would be itching to wipe out the Iranian nuclear facilities and launch us into yet another Middle-Eastern disaster.
Indeed, I know that Rick Santorum is among the last people I would wish to see in the White House. Even as Santorum spoke about the importance of freedom, I could not help but think about how freedom can be a fairly subjective concept. I seriously doubt that many American women, the LGBT community or, for that matter, the poor would feel particularly free during a Santorum presidency. It further struck me that while the former senator likes to rail against fundamentalist Islam as the great enemy of America, he would work to bring a fundamentalist Christian government to the nation and then try to sell us on the notion that he was delivering us freedom.
Still, as I watched Santorum introduce himself to the nation (nobody had paid any attention to him previously), I felt a tug on the heartstrings and an irresistible urge to like the man—and I suspect I was not alone.
So, will Iowa matter?
While Santorum does have a fairly decent organization on the ground in New Hampshire ready to take advantage of his new momentum, he has a long way to go to bank enough money to carry him through the end of this month. A media schedule in Florida—whose primary is just a few weeks away—is likely to cost his campaign about $2 million a week. And while the money faucet should begin to open for Santorum now that his campaign has shown some signs of life, it is hard to imagine that he has enough time to launch enough of a ground game in South Carolina and Florida to make a strong showing in these key states.
Still, strange things can happen - particularly in New Hampshire. While Mitt Romney appears to own the state, we all recall how Hillary Clinton cried and the 2008 Democratic primary turned from being an unstoppable feat of Obama momentum into a long, painful, and drawn-out affair.
Will Santorum finally be the anti-Romney the Democrats have been waiting for?
Maybe. If he can make it to South Carolina, get himself an endorsement from Sen. Jim DeMint and a few other important Tea Party politicians, we may just have a horse race. Should this turn out to be the case, the Iowa caucuses will turn out to have been a far more eventful political moment in the 2012 election than I imagined.
Ironically, by thrusting Rick Santorum into the fray and, by so doing, creating the potential for an extended GOP battle for the nomination —or possibly setting the stage for the choice of a very beatable general election candidate like Santorum—the state that launched Barack Obama on his successful quest for the White House in 2008 may once again play a critical role in producing yet another Obama victory.
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