DES MOINES, IOWA — It’s hard to say who was more excited Tuesday night: Rick Santorum, who came within eight votes of beating Mitt Romney or the Democrats watching on their couches at home.
The theory from the Democrats: if that’s the best Romney can do, the general election is looking better and better. Democrats have long focused on Romney as the likely nominee, and the results here in the Caucus race bear that plan out: even with just an eight-vote margin of victory, Romney’s path to the nomination looks smoother than ever. Democrats have also said the primary process exposes how vulnerable Romney can be. Tuesday night’s results seemed to prove that point as well.
Democrats pointed out that despite Romney’s heavy spending in Iowa and the five years he’s had to make his case to conservative voters, about 3/4 of caucus-goers last night chose someone other than the man who’s been making the case he’s the most electable for five years. More embarrassing for Romney: President Obama — who faced no competition — actually pulled out a competitive number of votes last night. Democrats say 25,000 Iowans turned out to caucus for the president.
Moving ahead to New Hampshire, Democrats say they’ve proven the point that Romney is a weak opponent for Obama.
“Despite Mitt Romney’s $14 million bet to win the Iowa Caucuses by promising to eviscerate Medicare and implement a divisive immigration policy, he could do no better than limp to a pathetic finish that didn’t even beat his 2008 results,” Obama super PAC PrioritiesUSA’s Bill Burton said in a statement. “But even worse for Romney, should he become the nominee, he now owns a long-term problem with Hispanic and senior voters that will he will not soon live down.”
Paul Begala, who advises Priorities, shared in the glee. The tough primary fight Romney faced in Iowa has played right into Democrats’ hands, he said.
“Romney has been dragged further and further to the right - on immigration, on the Ryan plan, etc,” Begala wrote in an email to TPM. “This will limit his ability to appeal to moderates and independents should he become the nominee.”
He put it a bit more cleverly in a Daily Beast column published Wednesday. As Romney pushes to boost the low Republican enthusiasm he’s facing, he risks pushing himself away from the voters he needs to win the fall, Begala said.
“There is something that doesn’t love Mitt Romney. Right now that something is the GOP base,” Begala wrote. “It would be ironic if Romney’s futile attempt to earn the love of Republican activists makes it impossible for him to win the affections of independents as well.”
President Obama’s reelection team helped twist the knife in a Wednesday afternoon phone call with reporters. Obama’s campaign director Jim Messina made sure he set high expectations for the upcoming New Hampshire primary, saying that Romney has been leading in the polls by 30 points in New Hampshire and he needs to keep that to continue momentum. Key Obama advisor David Axelrod added, “it’s a home game for [Romney]. If you don’t win home game by some margin” that’s a problem.
The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, Sue Dvorsky, released a statement claiming that among the 25 thousand Democrats who showed up to caucus for Obama, “more than 7,500 Iowans tonight pledged to volunteer for the campaign over the course of the next year.”
In early December TPM reported that the Obama campaign had already quietly built up a formidable machine in Iowa, so as not to cede energy and enthusiasm to the more attention-gathering Republican field.
Pema Levy contributed to this report.