With Mitt Romney's extraordinarily slim victory in the Iowa caucuses--the first hands-on-votes contest of the presidential season--the candidate roster has been ignited. I know a lot of people hate the year-long campaign that we endure every four years, but I love me a good primary fight; it pits a large number of varying factions against each other, and it's an all-out battle for the soul of the party. Both Democrats and Republicans have their range of personalities, experience, and slivers of interest; this has been going on since 1789.
[As an aside, I'm going to try and minimize the number of political posts, at least this early. I know most people aren't really interested, since everyone gets blasted with it nearly every day on the news,but I occasionally like to write this sort of thing down even for my own benefit. As we get closer to election day--especially when picking apart the electoral college, a singular fascination of mine--I'll be writing more such posts, but in the meantime I will at least try and keep the noise level down.] [No promises.]
So, here is a reasonably quick armchair analysis of the Republican field so far:
Mitt Romney: It's not all that controversial or insightful to say that he is the likely nominee. Winning in Iowa, the first contest, helped, though his narrow victory shows that he is vulnerable. But as the only viable moderate candidate--and the one most likely to defeat Obama--he should be able to stick it out and gather up enough delegates to win. No, he won't win every primary, and he may even falter in one or two. He'll also have to survive an Anyone But Romney challenge as his competitors drop out and solidify as one alternative candidate. (The fact that a lot of late, delegate-rich, and moderate states, such as New York and California, will most likely go overwhelmingly for Romney means as long as he can tough it out he'll start to get rewards.) But as long as he gets winning the #1 or #2 slot consistently he will be the eventual nominee.
Rick Santorum: Rick Santorum will be playing the part of Mike Huckabee. Right now everyone is going to freak out about Santorum, but in reality he will fade fast and quickly. He'll barely place in New Hampshire (perhaps a bit better than expected due to his good showing in Iowa) and has a decent shot at South Carolina, but with the target on his back he won't survive. (Can you see anyone outside of a few evangelical pockets that would vote for a man who is actively against birth control?) Liberals will try and paint Santorum as the "true face of the Republican Party," but he will (hopefully) quickly disappear.
Ron Paul: Paul will put in a good showing throughout the primaries. His devoted fan base from 2008, coupled with a slew of newly registered Republicans (who used to be independents) will guarantee he'll show up in a lot of primaries. His quixotic stances on the issues (read: libertarian) will basically guarantee him a slice of each state's voting pie, and he may even accumulate enough delegates to play kingmaker. I'm not sure of his staying power--he'll most likely get crushed in the machine-driven northern industrial states, and plenty of people in the South aren't fans--but he will do much better than expected. As the eventual nominee? Not impossible, but highly unlikely.
Rick Perry: Will drop out soon, I think. For a hugely popular governor of a huge state, he's been doing poorly in the polls and did poorly in Iowa. It's possible he'll keep going, hoping for a good showing in either South Carolina or Nevada, and he has the money and connections to keep things afloat for a while. But unless he has a surprising victory very soon his days are numbered. However, if the race winnows down to a Romney vs. Anyone contest and Anyone becomes Perry, he is probably in the strongest position to win.
Newt Gingrich: A lot of Republicans seem to like Newt, and for a lot of good reasons--he often hits the right notes, he has some innovative ideas, and while he isn't the most charismatic candidate he can get the base fired up. The problem is that GOP voters know he'll make a lousy president, and he's kind of a dick. A lot of people will support him, but when it comes time to actually pull the lever they won't do it for Newt.
Michelle Bachmann: If she can't win Iowa--her birth state and neighboring her current state--she can't win the nomination. She will stay in the race to "represent the interests of the Tea Party" but otherwise is done.
Jon Huntsman: He didn't really contest Iowa, so he placed last (not counting dropped-out Herman Cain and asterisk candidate Buddy Roemer). However, he's currently running third in New Hampshire, so his campaign has some life yet. As the only moderate choice outside of Romney, he is unlikely to go far, but he can play a role as the alternate candidate in case something happens to Romney and voters still want to nominate a moderate in a good position to beat Obama. Unlikely, though--primary GOP voters really don't care for him.
All in all, I can't really envision a scenario where Romney doesn't get the nomination. Sure, the Tea Party is a strong and influential force. The votes are split up enough at the moment that there isn't a clear Romney alternative, but as candidates drop out they will congeal with one strong contender, and then it will be a race. It's just that each of these alternate candidates either have no shot (Bachmann, Hunstman) or have too much baggage (Perry, Gingrich) to last.
That said, primaries are funny things. I would not be in the least bit surprised if Paul won libertarian-friendly New Hampshire, or South Carolina plumped for Perry or Newt, upending the pecking order. But I don't see Romney ever being mortally wounded, and time (as well as money) is on his side. Romney isn't perfect and he has baggage of his own, but he's clearly the best contender to defeat Obama.