Somewhere between 17 and 18 thousand Iowa Republicans showed up in Ames, Iowa on Saturday for a day long political carnival featuring rousing speeches by several of the GOP candidates hoping to receive their party's nomination for president next year. Following the speeches, the faithful took part in the traditional Iowa straw poll, an indicator of preferences among the partisan base. The poll also acts as a bellwether of organizational strength. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty invested more than a million dollars in Iowa hoping for a strong showing in the poll. He finished third in the balloting with 14% of the vote, about half the total received by the top two finishers, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul. Governor Pawlenty then announced on Sunday that he was ending his campaign for the presidency.
The media narrative now has the field for the GOP narrowed down to three (Bachmann, Romney, and Perry), two of whom did not even compete in Iowa, while all but ignoring the strong showing of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. While I think it will be difficult for Paul to win the party nomination I don't think it will necessarily be any more difficult than Bachmann winning it. Neither of them has any executive experience to speak of, both have a fervent band of supporters, and both play to the libertarian/Tea-party wing of the Republican Party. Financially, Paul might have an edge and he definitely has the experience to run a national campaign while Bachmann has had some notable struggles raising money at times. Paul has become famous for his 'money bombs' when he attempts to raise millions of dollars in a day. Bachmann does have the support of the 'tea-vangelicals' (a term I despise) going for her but it remains to be seen what kind of force they will be in the caucuses next January. Finishing in the top three in the Iowa Caucuses next year will be crucial to both candidates campaigns. Only one of them will manage that. If it is Paul, his campaign will be buoyed and sustained (though he likely continues to campaign in futility if he doesn't make the top three). If Bachmann fails to make the top three her campaign will be effectively dead.
That leaves current Texas Governor Rick Perry, who will have to neglect the needs of his state in order to wage a full time campaign for the presidency, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a moderate Mormon who isn't trusted by much of the GOP base. Perry has a natural appeal to social conservatives, many of whom are southerners, while Romney appeals more to the classical pro-business wing of the GOP. Both have their strengths and weaknesses entering the campaign. Perry has a solid, if somewhat ambiguous, record of accomplishment as governor of Texas. He has presided over a state that has boomed in terms of job growth in the last decade, though critics point out that 1/3 of the growth has been government jobs while much of the rest has been in low wage service industries. Romney, on the other hand, was elected governor of one of the most liberal states in America, largely based on his reputation for 'saving' the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Critics point out that job growth in Massachusetts during his tenure was below average and that he signed the nation's first universal health care law featuring the exact type of government mandate he opposes at the federal level. Financially, Romney will have a huge advantage over the rest of the field. His personal net worth is around $250 million and his fundraising ability is second to none. Perry remains untested at raising funds on a national scale, though he has been quite successful in Texas.
So given these three, or four, who will eventually secure the Republican nomination and the right to face off against President Obama 15 months from now? The smart money is on Romney right now but with four candidates appealing to disparate interests within the Republican Party, coupled with the rule changes regarding the allocation of delegates from the primaries and caucuses, the stage could be set for the first contested convention since 1976, when Gerald Ford bested Ronald Reagan for the nomination. Bachmann and Perry will compete for the evangelical vote, Romney for the financial sector and moderate Republicans, and Paul for the Libertarian wing of the party. In the final analysis, I think the GOP will go towards electability rather than ideological purity because it may be better to win with someone you don't fully trust than to lose with someone you do. That means Romney gets the nod with the VP slot going to Perry or Bachmann. I can't wait for January!