At long last, real voters cast real votes on behalf of real candidates. One down, 49 to go and that doesn't include American Somoa, Guam, the District of Columbia and other U.S. holdings.
You already know what happened last night: Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Rick Santorum essentially tied for first with 25 percent apiece. Rep. Ron Paul faded to third with about 2 percent. Speaker Newt Gingrich preserved a semblance of a win by beating out Gov. Rick Perry about 13 percent to 10 percent with Rep. Michele Bachmann coming in sixth with about five percent of the votes.
The Santorum story here - and it's a good story - is, months and months of hard work and long road trips finally paid off. After Conservatives in Iowa kicked the tires of the four other candidates: Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich; they decided to take a look at Santorum and decided he was as good as they were likely to get and they made their choice pretty clear.
The problem for Santorum will be, if he contends in New Hampshire - and he has said he will be there for "six of the next seven days" - and if he comes in a distant third behind a highly favored Romney and a bullet-proof Paul, then the momentum of the Santorum campaign will have evaporated in the chill air of a New Hampshire winter.
He will then be faced with retooling for South Carolina without the kind of attention he generated last night and which will follow him for the next week.
As for Romney, his team, including his Super PAC put a significant amount of effort (read money) into Iowa and it paid off as well. The Romney campaign brushed off the rises and falls of Bachmann, Perry, and Cain but showed they were ready for prime time when Gingrich began his rise.
They put Romney out to the press - at which he was rocky for the first few days - but he got his sea legs and he became more and more comfortable in interviews and on the stump. The Super PAC unloaded a ton of negative ads against Gingrich and they had the desired effect: The candidate they were seeing in Iowa was not the "Newt" they thought they knew.
We don't need to recount the substance of the ads here, but Gingrich's decision not to counter them was costly. The charges stuck and he sank in the polls on just about the same downward arc as had his three predecessors. Last night Gingrich said he was still going to be positive, but he was defining "positive" as saying negative things about Romney.
That's fine, if he can pull it off, more power to him. But a 13 percent finish is not going to turn on the money spout and it is not clear that with Santorum now likely to get the lion's share of the non-Romney press coverage, how Gingrich intends to get himself back into the discussion as a top tier candidate without a ton of TV which in a market dominated by Boston advertising prices is no easy task.
With Perry announcing he would not be going directly to South Carolina as he had said over the weekend but would, instead, be going back to Austin, means Iowa again has culled the herd.
Perry's campaign believed he would come in ahead of Gingrich and be able to claim at least some momentum moving forward. By coming in fifth there was no wind for his sails and he has to row home.
So, we're off on a journey that will lead us to the first Tuesday in November and the quadrennial, quintessential, American expression of freedom - electing a President of the United States.
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