By Eugene Robinson
DES MOINES—Mitt Romney and his backers decided that to win in Iowa they had to destroy Newt Gingrich’s campaign. Now Gingrich looks eager—and able—to return the favor.
Romney got his victory, but it doesn’t feel much like one. It’s embarrassing that the supposed Republican front-runner could only manage to beat Rick Santorum by eight votes out of about 120,000 cast in Tuesday’s caucuses. It’s troubling that Romney has spent the past five years campaigning in Iowa and still could draw just one-quarter of the vote.
And it’s downright ominous that Gingrich is threatening to do whatever he can to block Romney’s path to the nomination. If the sneering description of Romney in Gingrich’s post-caucus speech Tuesday is a preview—he called him a “Massachusetts moderate” who is “pretty good at managing the decay”—this could get ugly.
I mean uglier. Sometimes it seems as if niceness is Iowa’s state religion, but the way Romney and his crew took Gingrich apart was vicious. A pro-Romney political action committee called Restore Our Future spent more than $3 million ensuring that Iowans couldn’t watch 10 minutes of television without being assaulted by an ad explaining why Gingrich was a scoundrel, a knave, a hack, a goon or—shudder—a closet liberal.
Romney could claim distance from this sordid barrage since Restore Our Future is “independent”—wink, wink—of the campaign. There was a certain poetic justice, since Gingrich has done as much as any individual to make American political rhetoric a blood sport. Could it be that the man who calls Barack Obama a “food-stamp president” can’t take a little heat?
But Gingrich is furious—perhaps not just because he believes the negative advertising was unfair but because he knows it was brutally effective. He had surged ahead of Romney and seemed to have a viable path to the nomination. Tuesday night, after being worked over, Gingrich won just 13 percent of the vote and finished fourth.
It’s doubtful Gingrich can become the nominee. But he can inflict as much damage as possible on Romney, especially in this weekend’s two New Hampshire debates.
Gingrich is smart enough to know that the effect will be to give Santorum the time and space he needs to begin building a campaign organization that can compete with Romney’s. This de facto anti-Romney alliance, if it materializes, will be one of convenience, not conviction. But it could be effective.
The Iowa campaign proved what pollsters have been telling us all along: Republicans just don’t like Mitt Romney very much.
Oh, they like him much better than they like Obama. But this past week in Iowa, while it was easy to find support for Romney, it was hard to find passion. Crowds didn’t swoon over Romney the way they did over Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. Many of the staunch conservatives who dominate Republican politics here simply do not believe that Romney is one of their own.
“I would never vote for Mitt Romney, even if he were the nominee,” said Phil Grove, whom I met Monday afternoon at a Bachmann rally in West Des Moines.
Grove, a chemist, and his wife Sue, a nurse, were still undecided—the caucuses were just a day away—and had reasons for rejecting each candidate. Santorum and Gingrich were creatures of Washington, they said; Bachmann and Paul had good ideas but probably couldn’t beat Obama. Romney, though, was seen by the couple as simply beyond the pale.
Romney’s good fortune is that true-believer conservatives have had multiple candidates from which to choose—until now. With Bachmann dropping out and Rick Perry staggering, the race becomes—from Romney’s point of view—disturbingly simple.
He comes out of Iowa with a win, in the technical sense, but also with a new chief rival who has the potential to do fairly well in New Hampshire and very well in South Carolina. Given the shrinking field, there will be room for Santorum’s support to grow if he campaigns effectively.
Romney, meanwhile, still hasn’t proved that he can break through that 25 percent ceiling he keeps bumping against. And he has to deal with a Newt Gingrich who is wounded, angry and able to make himself the center of attention—the political equivalent of a snarling wolverine.
Yes, a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group