What We Learned From the Iowa Caucuses

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Thoughts from a late night in the Hawkeye State, where a narrow Romney triumph reordered the Republican race.

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DES MOINES -- The first voting of the 2012 primary finally occurred on Tuesday, and the result was spellbindingly close -- when the race was finally called in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney had triumphed over Rick Santorum by just 8 votes. Immediately, the Iowa results reordered the GOP contest, virtually eliminating two candidates and inaugurating a new world order as the caravan moves on to New Hampshire. The New Hampshire primary is January 10, less than a week away, with a debate scheduled for this Saturday, January 7.

Here's what we learned from Iowa.

* The Santorum surge was real after all. By tying the supposedly inevitable Mitt Romney in spectacularly late-breaking fashion, Santorum beat out all the other boom-and-bust candidates to become the official Romney alternative. Even better, he made Mitt Romney look weak, warming the hearts of conservatives everywhere. Wondering what Santorum's all about? Here's an introduction.

* Santorum made the most of his biggest moment yet. The caucus-night speech that will serve as his introduction to the nation was impressive: forceful, populist, heartfelt. He downplayed the cultural issues he's best known for and emphasized the blue-collar message he'll be counting on in New Hampshire.

* Mitt Romney seems nervous. Just like four years ago, Iowa rattled him. Speaking after Santorum, he made a hasty call to ditch his teleprompters, then gave a rushed version of his stump speech that seemed bloodless by comparison.

* It's going to get nasty. Santorum is the most aggressive attack dog of the GOP field, and he won't hesitate to go after Romney. Meanwhile, Santorum, who rose too quickly to really be vetted, is about to face the full force of the barrage Romney and his allies unleashed so effectively against Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. 

* Forget about Ron Paul. The Texas congressman's vaunted Iowa operation got him an impressive 21 percent of the vote, and in his speech Tuesday night, he insisted he had the third proverbial ticket out of Iowa. But the Romney-Santorum tie, and the contrast between the  two men, is about to consume the race. Paul's passionate supporters lifted him further than ever before. There just weren't enough of them.

* Newt Gingrich is really bitter. In his speech Tuesday night, the fourth-place finisher harped incessantly on the "negative ads" that destroyed him so efficiently. He pointedly congratulated Santorum and Paul, but not Romney, whom he blames for what he's called his "Romney-boating." (Even as he decried negativity, Gingrich called Paul's foreign policy "stunningly dangerous.")

* Rick Perry is all but certain to drop out. After coming in fifth with 10 percent of the caucus vote, the Texas governor took the stage late Tuesday and announced he would not go on to South Carolina as he'd planned. "I've decided to return to Texas, assess the results and determine whether there is a path forward," he said. The caucus was the first election Perry's ever lost in 27 years and 10 elections.


* Michele Bachmann isn't quitting, but she might as well. Despite widespread predictions that she would call it quits after coming in sixth in Iowa, Bachmann announced Tuesday night only that there were "many more chapters to be written" in the race. She sounded tired.

Image credit: Getty Images/Andrew Burton
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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