What a country. Between the tears and triumphs, the angry accusations and the grudging admiration, the repetitive epithets and the evocative patriotism, the race in Iowa ends in a photo finish. But any bookie will tell you that no matter how close the finish, you still pay out for win, place and show.
The pundits who long to be racing writers, handicapping election campaigns like horse races, abandoned Iowa as if it were Kentucky the morning after the Derby. We move on now to New Hampshire and the political Preakness, where the odds for Mitt Romney are friendlier, and then, to stretch the metaphor to the breaking point, to South Carolina and the Belmont Stakes. A Triple Crown might be good enough to assure the nomination.
If you watched the television correspondents and pundits trying to fill up the air in the wee hours of Wednesday, you might think a win is a loss, a second is a first, an also-ran a leading contender. But if "politics ain't beanbag," as the sage Mr. Dooley famously put it, an election is more than a horse race. People aren't horses, and when they jockey for power, metaphors have their limits. Those who complain about the process being tedious, with too much hot air and bloviation, ought to revel in the process as the American way. Despite the divisive arguments and the mean political attacks, politics ultimately unifies us, like it or not. We are one community watching the show, and we can feel secure in conflict, even when it gets nasty.
Iowa, where the tall corn grows, is not representative of the country -- but it is first, and it makes the candidates work out their message or work themselves out of the race. In Dave Barry's comic formulation, Herman Cain, the sensation only weeks ago, withdrew from Iowa to be with his family "and spend more time sleeping in his basement." (He got 58 votes Tuesday night.)
For all of the rising and falling polls, the first primary sharpens public discrimination, forcing the candidates to crystallize their message. If Newt Gingrich was felled by "negative advertising" of the heavy suitcases he carried into Iowa, he nevertheless raised the level of the debates with direct language, reminding everyone of the importance of rhetoric backed by intelligence. He flashed vampire teeth in his closing remarks and finished fourth.
Rick Perry showed how a campaign where all the issues are local is very different from a national campaign, where vast amounts of information must be sifted and synthesized before being spread before an audience. He will be remembered for contributing the shortest sound-bite: "Oops!" He took his boast that he had never lost an election back to Texas to rest among his souvenirs.
Michele Bachmann's star fell, and not on Alabama, but she was treated fairly and wasn't patronized as "a woman candidate." That's progress for Republicans. A lot of Iowans found Ron Paul's libertarian domestic policy rhetoric refreshing, but he was exposed for tolerating a hint of racism and anti-Semitism among some of his followers in the past, and his anachronistic isolationism was exposed as both dangerous and dumb. He quotes Thomas Jefferson, but Tom, he never knew ye.
Rick Santorum's knowledge of foreign policy contrasted sharply with Paul's nonsense and deepened the debate over the Middle East. Santorum finally got the attention he craved by his second-place finish in Iowa. He complained that he was neglected in the debates, and now he'll get the magnified scrutiny he may not like so much after all. His biography is moving, but his appetite for government pork renders him a glutton in mean and lean times. He calls his 18-point loss to Bob Casey in 2006 as bad luck in a bad political year, but there may be more here than an example of bad timing.
And that leaves Mitt Romney. If conservatives are dragged kicking and screaming into his camp, they may be learning that it's no time to revel in ideological purity and re-elect by default a president they, to put in mildly, don't particularly like. Romney has the fiscal conservatives behind him, and he has his sails trimmed for the social conservatives. He painted just the right tones to his closing television commercials in Iowa, a determined attempt to rise above petty party politics. He urged Americans to return to the principles every immigrant felt with his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. This was the land of freedom, opportunity and hope for new Americans, "that in America their children would have a better life."
An election, after all, is more than a race for horses.