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After virtual tie in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois may retain presidential clout

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2012 - The Iowa caucus' photo finish between GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum could foretell a protracted Republican battle between its social-issue and fiscal wings that could, in turn, make Missouri's caucus and Illinois' primary -- both in March -- significant players in determining the final outcome.

Then again, maybe not.

Such mixed messages appear to be the norm, as political activists and analysts sift through Tuesday's results, and the subsequent candidate fallout, for clues as to whether the GOP is headed toward a quick coronation of Romney as its de facto nominee or a long slog similar to the 2008 Democratic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It's a given, many in both camps say, that Romney will do well in New Hampshire next week. What's more important is what happens next.

"If Santorum can continue into South Carolina (Jan. 21), the battle continues,'' said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Although Romney is celebrating his eight-vote win, Jones said that Tuesday's results should be unsettling for him -- and heartening for social conservatives who want somebody else as the GOP's choice to take on Obama.

"The fact that the evangelical conservative vote did not fragment was a surprising element," Jones said. Santorum's strong 25 percent could help him collect the like-minded conservatives backing Michele Bachmann, who dropped out hours after her poor showing.

A protracted Republican fight could be "a likely scenario -- but not a certain scenario," Jones continued, if Santorum can collect enough money swiftly to wage strong primary battles in South Carolina and Florida (Jan. 31).

Where Missouri and Illinois fit in

And that's where Missouri and Illinois Republicans might become key factors, said St. Louis-based Republican consultant John Hancock.

Hancock worked for Romney in 2008 but is unaffiliated this year. As Hancock sees it, Romney has a window of only a few weeks to nail down the nomination.

"If the nomination is still competitive after Florida, then the Missouri caucus and all of the March primary states (which include Illinois) will become the critical factor in determining the nominee,'' Hancock said.

Missouri's caucuses begins March 17. The state will hold presidential primaries on Feb. 7, but the state GOP has decided that its primary results won't count. That decision was made to comply with national Republican rules to require most states to wait until March 1 for primaries or caucuses.

A key reason Missouri and Illinois may matter is that this year's Republican presidential contest, unlike 2008, is awarding delegates on a proportional basis until April 1. That's why Santorum and Romney won the same number of delegates Tuesday in Iowa.

As long as Santorum and other rivals, such as Newt Gingrich, can win delegates and raise money, they have an incentive to continue to challenge Romney.

That scenario mirrors the Obama-Clinton fight far more closely than the GOP battle in 2008, which was a winner-take-all affair in all the states. As a result, John McCain was able to amass a huge delegate lead early -- and swiftly discourage his challengers.

Hancock said that Iowa's results can be painted two ways.

"One: Romney cannot break through his ceiling (of roughly 25 percent of the GOP vote) and the parade of shooting stars (Bachman, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum) underscores that fundamental reality.

"Or two: Santorum had his flash at a strategically opportune time but will fade as quickly and as significantly as others as part of an inevitable Romney nomination."

Santorum singled out Missouri, by the way, in his co-victory speech Tuesday night.

A factor helping Romney in Missouri and Illinois: he already has the endorsements of most of the top Republicans in both states. They include U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and his son, former Gov. Matt Blunt, as well as former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo. The latter has been traveling extensively around the country on Romney's behalf.

The Romney backers in Illinois include U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who told Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig that he thought Romney's win in Iowa would boost his campaign nationally.

"I'm sure he wants to hug all eight voters who put him over the top" in Iowa, Kirk said Wednesday. "If you look at the polling in New Hampshire, he's right now at 41 percent and at the moment has a substantial lead. Should Romney be the victor of both Iowa and New Hampshire, then I think he has the possibility to clinch the nomination in South Carolina."

Kirk endorsed Romney on Dec. 19 and says he is a "special adviser on policy'' to the campaign.

If Romney is the GOP nominee, Kirk said, "I think President Obama is in significant danger of being defeated" in November.

Democrats react

Some area Democrats aren't so sure. About 100 -- including U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis -- gathered Tuesday night at the Royale bar on south Kingshighway to watch televised coverage of the Iowa results and discuss its possible impact.

St. Louis Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby, who was among the organizers, said many signed up to volunteer to work for Obama and Missouri Democratic candidates.

Wahby observed that attendees seemed particularly thrilled with Santorum's strong performance, believing that Santorum is too conservative and thus a weaker opponent for Obama.

But even Romney isn't feared, Wahby said. That view was underscored by Travis Johnson, 23, who said he was a moderate Democrat but viewed all the Republican contenders as espousing views too conservative to attract broad support in the November general election.

The candidate-selection process aside, there also appears to be a campaign to punish Missouri legislators for failing to move Missouri's presidential primary to March -- as sought by both national parties and state Democrats.

An anonymous website has emerged -- wasted8milliondollars.com -- that blames Republican legislative leaders for the cost of February's "won't-count primary."

"Republicans in Missouri are afraid of which Republican their primary voters might choose in the primary election,'' the site says. "Instead, they have chosen to only hear from a few in their party who have the time to commit to the caucus process that takes a whole evening -- and not a simple vote at the polls."

The domain name's owner appears to be anonymous, according to various domain-search sites.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Democratic Party is now calling on all three announced Republican U.S. Senate candidates -- U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, former treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner -- to declare whether they support Romney or Santorum. The aim appears to be to put the GOP candidates at odds with part of their party's base.

At the moment, none of the three candidates is biting. All indicate they're staying out of the presidential fray.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.