The Republican A-team is closer to being a one-man franchise called Mitt Romney.
The Iowa caucuses, the first hurdle in a quadrennial test of presidential potential, elevated a couple of prospects in Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. But they are so unready for prime time as to leave Mr. Romney with a fairly unobstructed path to the GOP nomination.
With all but a handful of Iowa’s precincts reporting by early Wednesday morning, Mr. Romney, Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum were clustered at the top. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney were tied at 24.5 per cent. Mr. Paul had 21.5 per cent support.
Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, state party chairman Matt Strawn said Mr. Romney had eked out a minuscule eight-vote victory with 30,015 votes to 30,007 for Mr. Santorum.
Mr. Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, proved his resilience in the face of recent attacks on his dovish foreign policy.
Mr. Santorum, an ex-senator from Pennsylvania, drew his strength from social conservatives, who signalled their desire to unite behind a single candidate.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul will have a hard time capitalizing on their Iowa performance, since they remain too controversial for most Republicans.
While the overall result still suggests the anti-Romney forces in the GOP have plenty of gas in the tank, the former Massachusetts governor heads into the Jan. 10 primary in New Hampshire a stronger and more daunting front-runner.
Romney rivals once thought to be serious – Texas Governor Rick Perry and ex-House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich – turned out to be all bluster, no bite. Mr. Gingrich captured only about 13 per cent in Iowa. Mr. Perry got 10 per cent.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who channelled the Iron Lady in a last-ditch effort to revive her prospects, fell on her sword. She picked up just 5 per cent.
Mr. Gingrich could still mount a comeback in South Carolina, which is neighbour to his native Georgia and where social conservatives loom large in the state’s Jan. 21 primary.
But it will be a Himalayan climb.
Mr. Gingrich will likely use two weekend debates to go on the offensive against Mr. Romney. Reneging on his promise to stay positive, he unleashed his inner pit bull on Tuesday, going so far as to call the front-runner a “liar.”
In a time-tested ritual of American democracy, as Iowa Republicans gathered in 1,774 precincts on Tuesday night, they were fed sales pitches by so-called precinct captains representing each of the candidates. Most captains simply repeated the script sent out by their candidate’s campaign headquarters. Others ad libbed.
“Washington has gone off the cliff on debt and we’ve got to get someone to get us back on path,” insisted Lee Stine, a retired trucker who spoke for Mr. Romney in Precinct 46. “He’s electable. He’s constantly outpolled Barack Obama. None of the others have.”
Surprisingly, Mr. Santorum’s precinct captain spoke little of his candidate’s stand on social issues, even though that had been the reason for his surging support among Iowa’s evangelicals. He called himself a “true conservative warrior.”
In a sign of the disarray in the Bachmann and Perry campaigns, no one spoke on their behalf in Precinct 46. Of the 87 votes cast, they each got only three. Mr. Romney won the precinct with 33 votes. Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum got 19 each.
With Iowa behind him, Mr. Romney must still work to close the enthusiasm gap that has dogged his candidacy, as grassroots Republicans question his authenticity. He has been haunted by footage from his 2002 gubernatorial run in which he described himself as both “moderate” and “progressive.”
Mr. Romney took to Fox News early Tuesday to reassure Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere that he is “more conservative than I was 10 years ago.” He also sloughed off Mr. Gingrich’s “liar” label, saying the former speaker “must be very angry.”
Indeed, Mr. Gingrich has taken the shots against him gracelessly. Though he vowed to refrain from negative attacks on his opponents – pledging to uphold Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment – he has been unable to hide his resentment toward Mr. Romney.
On Tuesday, Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Romney of lying when he claimed to have no influence over an organization supporting the ex-governor that spent millions on attack ads against Mr. Gingrich, who led the polls until the final stretch of the campaign.
If anything, the resurfacing of Mr. Gingrich’s snarly side illustrates, as much as any attack ad, why his campaign has been in a freefall. Despite levelling some of the most acid attacks in the annals of U.S. politics, he remains as thin-skinned as a political novice.
The attacks against Mr. Gingrich, while devastating, were hardly nasty by the standards of U.S. political advertising. Yet, the ex-speaker whined about being “Romney-boated” – laughably comparing his plight to that of the “swift-boated” John Kerry in 2004.
Like it or not, negative ads remain the jigsaw in the American political toolkit. There will be plenty more of them to come, if not in the Republican race, in the colossal battle between the eventual the GOP nominee and President Barack Obama.
If Mr. Romney demonstrated anything in Iowa, it is that he has the money, organization and discipline to take on a rival of Mr. Obama’s talent, team, timber and, oh yes, money.
The rest of the GOP primary contest will determine whether he has the presence, personality and policies to capture not only his party, but the nation.
With a file from The Associated Press