2012 Presidential Campaign

Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battle for Iowa victory, but did Tim Pawlenty quit the race too soon?

After months and months of talk and waffle, the Republican presidential canidates go into the Iowa vote with some trepidation. They all know that this is where the serious business begins, where actual votes start to be cast. There’ll be no hiding place for the losers. And it looks like there are four candidates who stand a chance of winning in Iowa: nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney, dark horse Ron Paul, recent surger Rick Santorum, and blast-from-the-past Newt Gingrich.

Romney probably has the most to lose. He’s expected to win, and he should win, having poured resources into this vote. If he doesn’t win, he’ll look extremely vulnerable. Even if he does win, critics will not be satisfied. After all, Romney has the resources, the experiences and the money, yet he is still not able to pull out a commanding lead. What does that say about his ability to inspire the Republican party to come out and support him in 2012 against Obama? Will the party’s hatred of the Democrat president be enough to overcome their apathy towards Romney?

Then there’s Ron Paul. A lot has been written about him, and Iowa will be the first test of his potential. Some polls are giving him a narrow lead. If he wins, the race will be thrown into disarray. According to the Republican establishment, Paul shouldn’t win. But he might. And his strong showing is an indication that all is not well within a party that apparently can’t acknolwedge the true beliefs of its supporters. Recent weeks have seen a flow of steady criticism of Paul, suggesting that his opponents finally see that he is a credible candidate. Win or lose (and I’d argue you’d be foolish to write him off), he is arguably the most interesting candidate in terms of what he reveals about the Republican party in 2012.

Rick Santorum has enjoyed a surprise surge in recent weeks. He has focused heavily on Iowa, but even his fiercest critics must be shocked by how well he is suddenly doing. Nevertheless, he won’t win the Republican nomination, even if he has an outside shot of winning in Iowa. Iowa will probably be his last stand, his only chance to make a splash. And it would arguably be too difficult for him to overcome some of his more controversial past remarks in any actual presidential run against Obama. He’s a spoiler, but spoilers can have a major impact even if they ultimately don’t win.

Newt Gingrich has been fading in recent weeks. He needs to do well in Iowa in order to revive his flagging momentum, even if he has been down-playing expectations. He clearly sees the race as a long haul, and in truth defeat to Romney in Iowa would not be a disaster. He needs to cling on in the top three and hope he performs significantly better in his more natural stalking grounds. Second would be good, third would be okay, fourth would be a setback. He remains a credible candidate, and he could still beat Romney in the long race.

Then there are Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman. Their main job would seem to be to mitigate the damage and to work out where they stand ahead of the November elections. None of them has any real chance of winning the Republican nomination. Bachmann could play a role, could even be a VP candidate if the wind blows her way, while Perry probably needs to focus on rebuilding his credibility in Texas after a disastrous foray onto the national stage. Huntsman remains something of an unknown quantity for many Americans. He certainly doesn’t seem like someone with a strong future in Republican politics, but stranger things have happened.

I’ll tell you who is probably kicking himself, though: Tim Pawlenty. When Pawlenty bowed out of the race back in August, it seemed he would be the first of a number to throw in the towel. But with the likes of Santorum and Gingrich having enjoyed revivals of their fortunes, and with the GOP still struggling to find a natural leader, one wonders whether Pawlenty pulled the trigger too soon. If he’d stuck it out, perhaps he could be in a strong position right now? We’ll never know, but one of the key lessons of the current Republican presidential race is that you can never, ever count anyone out entirely.

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