Mitt Romney won his anticipated victory in the Iowa Straw Poll, with 32 percent and 4,500 votes, but fell short of expectations. Ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, with 18 percent, exceeded them, and is the man of the hour to the political press.
The results from Ames, and South Carolina's decision to move its primary to Jan. 19, are fraught with portent for the GOP and the party's hopes of holding the White House.
First, the turnout at Ames, with 14,000 voting, was modest, in comparison to 1999, when George Bush finished first with 7,500 votes out of 23,000 cast.
The diminished turnout suggests the GOP is not as hungry as it was when Bill Clinton was ending his second term, or as excited as it was about its candidates or prospects.
Second, the 18 percent showing by Huckabee and the 15 percent by Sen. Sam Brownback mean both will be in the race to January. And, as both are strong social conservatives competing for the pro-life and Christian vote, both will be jostling each other -- and both will be tearing down Mitt Romney's credentials as a social conservative.
That Huckabee came in a strong second and Brownback a close third, however, is not bad news for Mitt. It means both will be in the race until January, and neither can wholly unite pro-life and Christian voters against him. As they split the vote in Ames, they will likely split it in January, to Romney's benefit.
There is other good news for Romney in the returns from Ames. Because his victory was not overwhelming, because Huckabee made a strong showing, the Iowa race -- with its prospect of an upset -- becomes far more interesting to the national and world press.
Here is where the new calendar comes in.
As South Carolina has moved its primary to Jan. 19, New Hampshire will move up to Jan. 12 or before, and Iowa, which has said it will hold the caucuses in the new year, will thus have to hold them in the first week and perhaps the first few days of January.
This means the national and world press, a day after Christmas, will be heading for Iowa and camping out to cover the GOP race, as well as the Clinton-Obama-Edwards showdown that same day.
Especially if the GOP race appears close, the coverage of the candidates -- particularly Romney and Huckabee -- will be intense. Left out of that coverage will be any GOP candidate not competing in Iowa.
Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson each thus face a major dilemma and crucial decision. Given their pathetic showings at the straw poll, where their names were on the ballot but they did not speak, if they contest Iowa, they will have to spend time, energy and money even to be competitive. And they would risk a third- or fourth-place finish. But if they skip Iowa, they could face a media blackout for the 10 days between Christmas and the caucuses, while Romney and the rest in Iowa are all over the national news.
If all three wait in New Hampshire, all three could be in the dark until the news from Des Moines rolls over the country and propels the winner of the caucuses to the forefront in New Hampshire.
Moreover, South Carolina, by tightening the schedule and pushing Iowa and New Hampshire closer to New Year's Day, and crowding them closer together, increases the momentum value of an Iowa victory.
Perhaps the best hope McCain, Thompson and Giuliani have of stopping Romney is to have Huckabee or Brownback defeat him in Iowa. And the surest way to do that would be for Brownback or Huckabee to drop out and stop splitting the social conservative vote.
But given the strong performance of both, that appears unlikely.
Bottom line: The front-runners, Thompson and Giuliani, and McCain have left their destiny in other hands. If none of them is going to contest Iowa, and try to take Romney down there, all have a vital interest in helping Huckabee or Brownback tarnish a Romney victory with a strong finish, or defeat him in Iowa, which might finish him. For today it does not look like any of the three -- Thompson, Giuliani or McCain, who ran seventh, eighth and 10th -- can do it themselves.
For the front-runners, this would be the best of all possible worlds. For even if Brownback or Huckabee emerged with the moral victory in Iowa, neither has the resources for a national campaign, though the checks would pour in, in the event of an Iowa victory.
All of which raises an interesting question.
Did Romney hold down the score at Ames to make the race more exciting, to give a victory there in January greater drama, perhaps to lure Giuliani or Thompson or McCain or Newt Gingrich back into the state, where in that country of the Sioux, he could scalp them all?
The Republican race has suddenly gotten more interesting. The Iowa Straw Poll has a way of doing that.