After two tries, Mitt Romney can finally add the title, “Iowa Caucus winner” to his resume. And, like a good management consultant, he did so while spending significantly less money than he did four years ago.
More important, the man who once looked like his strongest opponent for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, came in a disappointing fifth place, and announced that he was returning to Austin to reassess his political future.
Newt Gingrich, who also looked like he would be a serious threat to Romney, struggled to a fourth-place finish. He has pledged to drop the Mr. Nice Guy approach he took in Iowa, and to start making a sharper contrast with Romney in New Hampshire.
Even so, the damage inflicted on Gingrich’s standing in New Hampshire as well as nationally is real. And, the mercurial former speaker has yet to prove he has the discipline needed to sustain a focused and effective assault on Romney.
Even so, an eight vote victory over an underfunded foe who just a couple weeks ago barely registered a blip in the polls, isn’t particularly impressive.
Neither is the fact that he received six fewer votes last night than he did in 2008.
And, despite his win, he still hasn’t been able to shed the perception that he’s got a problem with conservative Republican voters.
According to entrance polling taken of Iowa caucus goers, 47 percent identified themselves as “very conservative.” Santorum took 35 percent of their votes to Romney’s 14 percent.
Voters who called themselves “strong” tea party supporters went with Santorum by a 2-1 margin.
The big bright spot in the entrance polling for Romney is the fact that the economy, not social or cultural issues, is the driving issue for all voters. Forty-two percent of Iowa caucus voters said the economy was their most important issue – just 13 percent picked abortion.
Romney took 33 percent of those whose top concern was the economy to just 19 percent for Santorum.
Romney now needs to show he can broaden his coalition to include more strong conservatives, while Santorum will need to broaden his message to appeal beyond his base of social conservative Republicans.
Amy Walter, Political Director, ABC News