Divided Conservatives

Unless things change appreciably in the next few primaries, Iowa has presented a rather clear possibility, perhaps even a probability though it is too early to know for sure: Mitt Romney could win the Republican nomination handily, while the other candidates split the evangelical vote. Although Mr. Romney won by only a small margin in Iowa last night, he won without having campaigned significantly in the state. A Super PAC did the dirty work of attacking Newt Gingrich on Mr. Romney’s behalf, without letting mud spatter the pristine candidate. That strategy could continue, too; the finances are in place.

Even clearer is the fracture among evangelical conservatives, which reportedly made up 60 percent of the voters in the Iowa Republican caucus. Rather than rallying around any single candidate, as they did in 2008 when they lavished support on Mike Huckabee, they split in this case between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

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As Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry drop out of the primary race, the split among evangelical conservatives could become more apparent, especially if Newt Gingrich campaigns strongly in New Hampshire and makes a good showing in South Carolina. Mr. Gingrich could still manage to attract conservatives, though his personal morality (messy divorces and marrying the woman with whom he had an affair) works against him particularly with evangelical conservatives looking for a moral exemplar. Still, Mr. Gingrich is a true conservative when it comes to small federal government, the economy, social spending, the military and states rights and can be a convincing speaker. Unlike Mr. Santorum, Mr. Gingrich doesn't seem a likely vice presidential choice.

Jon Huntsman, who has been campaigning virtually alone in New Hampshire, might make a surprisingly strong showing there, but so far he has not mustered enough support anywhere to be a real challenge to any other candidate; his big contribution has been as an intelligent, moderate voice in the debates.

What all this leaves is Mr. Romney as the likely winner, the man seen as most appealing to independents, on the one hand; and Messrs. Santorum, Paul and Gingrich vying for the conservative votes—the group that hopes to change the nation’s politics forever with this presidential election.

Finally, that scenario causes me to conjecture that whoever wins the presidency could be less important than who the electorate sends to Washington. If the next Congress is as polarized as this one has been, or if Republicans gain seats in the Senate, that party could prove as obstructionist and paralyzing as we have seen over the last two years. Mr. Romney, who compromised with Democrats as governor of Massachusetts, could be a unifier or a leader capable of compromise who could work with both sides. At least, I used to think that, even hope that he would be a true moderate. But so far, Mr. Romney has disavowed his highest achievements as governor, including the health care plan, and has campaigned as a “values conservative.” That leaves me, and many voters, unsure of what his actual views are or whether he would stand up and fight for anything, other than his own office. So political unity looks to be a less likely prospect than ever, depending not on the next occupant of the White House, but on the elected members of the House and Senate. The real races to watch will be there.

 

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