The remarkably close finish in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday has, if anything, cast more uncertainty on the question of which Republican will challenge President Barack Obama in November.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose backers spent heavily on his behalf in Iowa, beat conservative former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by only eight votes -- though Santorum campaigned on a shoestring budget. It was the slimmest margin of victory in the history of the Iowa caucuses.
Romney and Santorum each got 25 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul's 21 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 13 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann finished well behind, prompting Bachmann to drop out. Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, got less than 1 percent. He is banking on a good showing in next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
Romney's narrow win reflects roughly the support he has had in polls for months, and it is about the same percentage he got in Iowa in 2008 -- a year when he lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain. Moreover, it's uncertain how representative of Iowa this year's caucuses were; only about 4 percent of Iowa's 3 million people took part in the caucuses.
Santorum surged late in Iowa to come within a few votes of Romney, and Paul had a good showing, too. It is unclear, though, whether Santorum can keep the momentum he will need to be competitive in New Hampshire or in the upcoming primaries in South Carolina and Florida. And some of Paul's misguided views -- such as his belief that nuke-seeking, terrorism-sponsoring Iran poses no major threat -- raise big questions about whether he is a viable candidate.
So what is the message from Iowa? We wish we knew.
Romney is strongly expected to do well in New Hampshire, and he hopes a good showing there will boost his prospects in South Carolina, where Gingrich holds a commanding lead in recent polls. Then it's on to Florida, where Gingrich has been tied with or well ahead of Romney in polls.
There are other wild cards in the race as well. With conservative Bachmann now out and conservative Perry's hopes fading, who might get most of their backers' support? Will it be Gingrich or Santorum, or could the more moderate Romney attract Perry's and Bachmann's backers? We won't know until voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- and later primary states -- cast their ballots.
Conservative Republicans have done better in recent presidential races than middle-of-the-road ones. But depending on how the primaries over the next few weeks turn out, we could be in for a bit of a wait before we know who will challenge and, we hope, decisively defeat Obama.