Iowa Rewards Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul

Iowans settle on two men who could not be more different.

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So this is what passes for fun on January 3, 2012 in Iowa: choosing the established pol Mitt Romney and the fast-surging Rick Santorum as the most eligible suitors of all those that came calling here, their eyes fixed on the dream of the White House. Iowa was a heartbreaker for the rest.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

In a way, the caucus results (a dead heat now, at midnight) reflect hedging their collective bets on the smooth, prosperous "known known," Romney, and the rough cut right-winger, Santorum. The two could not be more different and it remains to be seen whether either will produce 76 trombones for the band to lead the parade. (More on this in a moment.)

The caucus is a massive Midwestern game of confidence. When cornfields lie bleak and bare all around, the state's Republicans get together to "visit" and choose which of the seven candidates deserves their confident support for president. Most bring informed opinions because they've taken the measure of each contender in the race over weeks and months. This civil discourse makes quite an impression on the rest of the United States for a fleeting evening. But we the people not from Iowa wonder what they do when they don't have a winter presidential harvest to reap.

Well, back on July 3, 1912, a handsome traveling salesman named Harold Hill jumped a train passing by a small Iowa town, River City, where he proposed starting a boys band--remember? It's the story of The Music Man, the great American musical by Meredith Wilson, set in the days of his childhood. Harold is a huckster at first who grows some character under Iowa's sun. One century later in the same state, Harold's campaign to win the town's trust and Marian the librarian's heart rhymes with the quest of Romney, Santorum and the rest of the field. They all had to give their all to a tough audience--tough but fair.

[See editorial cartoons about Romney.]

In the musical story, Harold as a stranger, was greeted with the song, "Iowa Stubborn," sung by townspeople: "Glad to have you with us/Even though we may not ever mention it again." Translated, in Iowa, they like to say "the less said about that, the better." They don't set much store by fancy words or folks that are "stuck-up." Got that, Newt Gingrich? Also, although his third wife Callista is a native of Wisconsin, the state next door, she's not the girl next door. In a conservative churchgoing demographic, let's just say, I don't think she won her husband many votes, given their backstory of a long affair. It just doesn't sit well.

Iowa is a state where people look at others in a square light. Does he keep his barn painted? Is she someone I'd like to see at the ice cream social? Do they have common sense and some book learning? Do they come in from the storm before lightning strikes? This I can say: Rick Perry, the affable Texas governor and Michele Bachmann, the plucky Minnesota congresswoman, did not lose tonight because their social graces need work. They made a strong impression on that front; lots of fun at an ice cream social or a Laura Ingalls Wilder re-enactment. Perry would be a great Pa. Looking under their shiny surfaces to judge the stuff they are made of, though, Iowa Republicans sized them up as out of their depth.

As the song says, "Ya got trouble, folks/Right here in River City/Trouble with a capital T...." For Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann, trouble means Iowa is the end of the line.

The eccentric Texas congressman, Ron Paul, got a new breath of life from Iowa Republican Caucus, including many younger voters who liked his forthright unwavering critiques of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think they see he's not afraid to speak his mind and take unpopular stands alone. In this way, he may remind them of a grandfatherly figure whom they associate with salty integrity. Younger voters have more reason to fear the cost of waging two wars will ultimately catch up with them. He has shrewdly positioned foreign policy as a pocketbook issue.

Iowa Republicans took their job even more earnestly this year, bearing in mind Iowa Democrats can forever say they chose the eventual winner, Barack Obama, in 2008. But in the end Iowa Republicans could not make a clear choice between the well-connected, rich Romney and the scrappy underdog Santorum, who visited all 99 Iowa counties. In the Midwest, that kind of work ethic counts for something.

  • Read Leslie Marshall: Why Iowa Doesn't Matter.
  • See political cartoons about the GOP.
  • Vote now: Who is your choice for the GOP nomination?