Mitt Romney's narrow eight-vote victory Tuesday over a suddenly surging Rick Santorum may have been one of the tightest squeakers in the history of Iowa's spare caucuses, yet the former Massachusetts governor can still be counted as the big winner in the first state contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney's win, to be sure, is tainted by both the light turnout -- just 122,000 Iowans cast ballots -- and the fierce barrage of super-Pac-financed political advertising that knocked down one of his leading opponents, Newt Gingrich. The storm of largely negative advertising -- $12.5 million in all and nearly $3 million of that against Gingrich, who until two weeks was leading the Iowa polls -- raised the ominous specter of the unaccountable, corporate-strength, special-interest spending that will appear full-blown across the nation in the presidential contest later this year.
Two-thirds of the advertising expenditures were made by anonymous, corporate-funded super-Pacs. Their emergence at scale in the Iowa campaign was the first opening for such an advertising barrage since the Supreme Court ruled last year that anonymous corporate interests could spend freely on political campaigns without limits and accountability, as long as such spending is not technically affiliated or coordinated with a specific political candidate.
Romney's campaign and base support, overtly aided by the super-Pac spending steered against Gingrich by two of Romney's former campaign workers, remained steady throughout the run-up to Tuesday's balloting, helping him snag him 25 percent of the vote. That margin was consistent with his continued standing in the polls, while the campaigns of all his opponents waxed and waned all the over the landscape.
Though it may seem too early to say it, Romney's Iowa victory seems to affirm what most political analysts have said from the beginning of the Republican dogfight: that the race for the Republican presidential nomination this year is Romney's to lose.
His legendary flip-flopping on every important issue notwithstanding, that assessment makes sense. He is the only Republican candidate in the current field with the credentials, the informed views, the governing history and the financial backing to attract the mainstream Republican and independent support that will be necessary to seriously contest President Barack Obama in November. His fellow contestants have made an amusing political circus up to now, but none were given much chance of taking their show to the big time.
Tuesday's surprises, however small, came further down the line.
Gingrich, the presumptuous womanizing talking machine who recently was seen as the leading anti-Romney conservative among Iowa's fickle taste-them-all caucus-goers, ended up fourth, drowned by negative advertising and Iowan evangelicals' new flavor choice, Santorum, and the anti-everything libertarian, Ron Paul.
While Paul got 21 percent of the vote in the caucuses (or 26,219 actual votes, vs. the two front runners' 30,015 and 30,007, respectively), Gingrinch got just 16,219 votes.
That kept him well ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (12,604 votes), who's now reconsidering his campaign, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (6,073), who immediately suspended her harsh campaign. Lagging far behind those two previous flash hopefuls is Romney's fellow Mormon, Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who won just 745 votes but still says he will show up next Tuesday for the New Hampshire primary, which Romney appeared to have locked up even before Sen. John McCain's exuberant endorsement Tuesday.
Gingrich's distant finish provides him little hope for a sustained campaign, yet he, like Perry, says he wants to be in the South Carolina field on Jan. 21.
It remains to be seen whether the scale of super-Pac spending in Iowa's caucuses, which was far more than was spent statewide over 18 months in Iowa's last gubernatorial race, will continue to be a feature of the Republican primaries. Regardless, its arrogant and unbridled power has already been felt. Unless the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court that unleashed such spending allows sane restrictions, the political battle later this year will be unimaginably mean and distorted.