“Romney surges in Iowa on issue of electability” proclaimed the odd headline on the front page of Thursday’s Washington Post, citing a late December CNN/Time/ORC International poll showing Mitt Romney at 25 percent, leading Rep. Ron Paul (22 percent) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (16 percent) in the important initial GOP test.
Two earlier CNN/Time/ORC polls had Romney at 20 percent (in late November/early December) and at 24 percent (in late October), so it’s hard to see exactly how the former Massachusetts governor has “surged.”
Still, it’s clear that expectations in Iowa have changed recently, both for the media and for the Romney campaign.
For months, Romney’s inability to get more than 25 percent in surveys of likely Iowa caucuses attendees has been cited as the reason he can’t win Tuesday’s caucuses. Now, however, the former Massachusetts governor’s 25 percent showing in the CNN/Time/ORC poll and 24 percent showing in the new Des Moines Register survey suddenly look impressive, since anti-Romney voters have been unable to unite behind a single alternative.
With Paul showing strength among libertarians and four other hopefuls — Santorum, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — drawing various amounts of support from conservatives, Romney may need only a quarter of the vote to win, exactly the same percentage he received four years ago when he finished behind conservative Mike Huckabee’s 34 percent.
Romney could still benefit from the perception that he is the most electable Republican. But even if the former governor does not win, he looks poised for a surprisingly good showing in a state in which he was not expected to compete just a few months ago.
Paul’s strength has been a boon to Romney, who suddenly looks like a mainstream conservative compared with the Texan’s libertarian views. And Romney could benefit from the view that only he can stop Paul from winning the caucuses.
Somewhere along the way, every candidate in the race not named Romney concluded that the caucuses were not about defeating the former Massachusetts governor but, instead, were about finishing ahead of everyone else. That meant that Romney could generally fly above the barrage of attacks that Paul, Perry, Santorum and Bachmann were directing at each other and at Gingrich.
The one Republican who has avoided incoming fire (so far) has been Santorum, who until a few days ago was a threat to no one. But now, desperate to find someone to stop Romney, social conservatives have turned to the only Republican they have not already embraced, and that is the former Pennsylvania Senator.
Santorum’s emergence as a contender in Iowa carries very little risk for Romney. The Pennsylvanian simply doesn’t have much of a campaign outside Iowa, and his legislative record is only now being dissected by his opponents and the media.