Santorum surge in Iowa shakes up Republican race
Mitt Romney’s razor-thin margin of victory over staunch social conservative Rick Santorum exposed a divided Republican party – and suggests that Romney may have a longer road ahead of him than he had previously hoped.
Mitt Romney, widely considered in US political circles to be the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, came out on top in Tuesday night’s eagerly awaited Iowa caucuses.
But his razor-thin margin of victory – a mere 8 votes – over Rick Santorum, a low-profile, staunch social conservative whose candidacy surged in the past week, has shaken up the race, suggesting that Romney may have a longer road ahead of him than he had previously hoped.
The past several months have seen various contenders - Tea Party queen Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry, African-American pizza mogul Herman Cain, and former House leader Newt Gingrich - take turns rivalling Romney in the polls. Santorum’s strong showing in Iowa, with 24.5% of the votes compared to Romney’s 24.6% and libertarian Ron Paul’s 21%, indicates that he is now, as France 24 correspondent Nathan King termed it, “the official stop-Mitt-Romney candidate”.
With relatively low name recognition, less robust campaign organisation, and limited funds, Santorum remains a long shot for the Republican nod. Still, aside from offering the former Pennsylvania senator a chance to frame himself as a viable alternative to Romney, the Iowa caucuses give him a burst of momentum that he will try to maintain as the competition moves on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
Republicans torn between pragmatism and principles
Tuesday night’s final tally also exposed the fissures within the Republican party, as it searches for a candidate to try to evict President Barack Obama from the White House. “Iowa set in stone the divisions we’ve seen in the party leading up to this campaign,” Annette Young, France 24’s international affairs editor, noted.
Romney, a mainstream conservative often accused of strategically swerving to the right after his tenure as governor of left-leaning Massachusetts, is backed by the Republican establishment and business leaders who argue that his experience as CEO of a private equity firm makes him the most electable candidate during an economic crisis.
Santorum, on the other hand, appeals to social and Christian hardliners who share his unwavering emphasis on family and conservative values and long for an ideologically pure right-wing nominee instead of a more moderate or pragmatic one.
Indeed, while serving in the House of Representatives (1990-1994) and the Senate (2000-2006), Santorum was known for his consistently conservative voting record on issues ranging from government spending immigration to the Iraq war.
The grandson of a coal miner and the son of a working-class Italian immigrant, Santorum is also a devout Catholic whose faith has shaped several of his political proposals – including imposing a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and abortion, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and ending taxpayer dollars for contraception.
For the first several months of the Republican battle for the presidential nomination, Santorum flew mostly under the radar as flashier contenders sparred at debates, dominated headlines, and rose and fell in the polls. But the candidate persevered, surrounding himself with loyal advisers from his days in the Senate, as well as aides who had guided former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee to victory in Iowa in 2008.
Santorum also hit the Midwestern state’s farm-lined roads in a pickup truck, stopping off at diners, churches, and other community-friendly venues to court locals in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.
The challenge lying before Santorum after Iowa is to raise the money, mount the advertising campaigns, and recruit the staff of volunteers that would allow him to compete with Romney and Ron Paul, who run tightly structured, well-funded operations.
Now that he has grabbed the spotlight, Santorum will also be the object of much closer scrutiny from the media and sharper attacks from his rivals.
The possibility of a Romney-Santorum fight to the finish
As for Romney, though he failed to leave all his competitors in the dust in Iowa, he has nonetheless sealed his reputation as the favourite; Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, both of whom have topped Romney in voter preference surveys at different points in the last few months, finished a distant fourth and fifth. Romney is moreover expected to receive a coveted endorsement from Arizona Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain this week.
Perhaps most importantly, Romney continues to be the strongest in general-election polls against Obama -- something many Republican voters will keep in mind as the primary season unfolds.
But the presence of a strict, across-the-board conservative like Santorum in the top tier of the field could shine a spotlight on Romney’s perceived weakness: his “flip-flopping”, or the shifting of his stances, particularly on social issues, from moderate to harder right over the course of his political career.
In trying to rally the Republican base and solidify his lead against Santorum, Romney may be forced to clarify positions in a way that will turn off the moderates and independents he would need to beat Obama in November. The president and his re-election campaign team are therefore likely relishing the prospect of a prolonged, potentially nasty primary fight between Romney and Santorum.
On Tuesday night, Romney, too, seemed to be bracing himself for what may come next. “Onto New Hampshire, let’s get that job done!” he told crowds of supporters as the votes trickled in. “Come visit us there, we’ve got some work ahead.”