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When Mitt Romney kicked off this past week with a blitzkrieg tour of Iowa, he had no way of knowing just how true this statement would be: "You guys in Dubuque, you're the best. Get out there and vote tomorrow. I need every vote!"
He wasn't kidding. When the final numbers were tallied in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor edged his closest rival, Rick Santorum, by the smallest margin in Iowa history — just eight votes.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says for Romney, the best thing about winning this first bout in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination may have been the people who came in second and third.
In his view, Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are far easier rivals for Romney to defeat than Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich might have been.
"Gingrich may not have the money and organization, but he has the mouth power," Sabato says. "And Rick Perry, of course, does have the money and can buy the organization; the combination potentially could have been lethal to Romney going forward. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are a completely different equation."
Later there would be some reports of counting errors in Iowa, but it seems they would not have changed the outcome.
On To New Hampshire
And that sets the stage for the campaign season's first primary this Tuesday in New Hampshire. At a rally in Manchester, Romney supporter Frank Bessey predicted a more decisive victory this time around — a view supported by the latest NBC News/Marist poll, which shows Romney far ahead with 42 percent support. Paul's a distant second at 22 percent.
Romney's "been in New Hampshire a lot," Bessey says. "I think the New Hampshire people like his conservative message that he's putting forward. He's expected to win here, will hopefully win here, and that gives him momentum going forward for down South."
And down South was where Romney headed next, with a new endorsement in hand — from the man who defeated him in New Hampshire four years ago.
"Now, my friends, our message to President Barack Obama is, 'You can run, but you can't hide from your record,' " said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spent the rest of the week's rallies at Romney's side.
A Different Greeting Down South
Romney is so confident of winning in New Hampshire that on Thursday, he flew to a state where his victory is far less certain — South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21.
And at the Peanut Warehouse, a century-old building by the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C., the audience was more skeptical.
"Central Casting Mitt, I call him," said real estate agent Mike Patton. "If you were going to have a TV show about a president, he'd be the guy you'd pick out of the lineup."
Patton said Romney just isn't conservative enough for a lot of folks in the South.
"I think Santorum's going to do better than everybody thinks. He's got a lot of support in my group of Republican friends."
Still, a CNN/Time/ORC poll out Friday shows Romney with a strong lead in South Carolina.
Over the last month, he's up from 20 percent to 37 percent; Santorum has moved into second place with 19 percent. Gingrich, the previous leader, dropped to third at 18 percent.
Eyes On The Current Occupant
Through all those stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney let others attack his Republican rivals. The candidate kept his sights on President Obama.
"I think he subscribes to something I call crony capitalism," Romney said, "which is a belief not in free markets and free people pursuing their dreams, but instead of a government that pays back favors to the people who took care of them."
Conservative voters have spent the past year flirting with alternatives to Romney. Even Saturday, some conservative leaders are meeting in Texas to explore possibilities.
To be sure, Romney's week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina was not exactly a love fest. But sometimes in politics they don't have to love you — they just have to vote for you.