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Five things we learned from the Iowa caucuses

1 Mitt Romney has a serious problem with the conservative base. He won the Iowa caucuses, barely, with just 25 percent of the vote. That's about what he got in the 2008 Iowa caucuses when he finished a distant second, and it mirrors his level of support in poll after poll nationally. It would be remarkable to have a nominee with a ceiling of 25 percent support in his party's base, but Romney just might pull it off. South Carolina and Florida could be the first opportunities to prove he can win a key contest with conservative support.

2 Iowa lived up to its reputation for winnowing the field. Caucus-goers knocked Michele Bachmann out of the race (showing that their much-hyped Ames straw poll is virtually meaningless), and crippled Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. What's more, the results proved with Rick Santorum that old-school, person-to-person campaigning can trump big money. Santorum won by hitting every county in the state and talking to every Republican he could find. Perry spent millions on TV in Iowa and still wound up in fifth place. Organization still matters in Iowa, where the top three finishers each put together formidable grass roots campaign operations.

3 Negative ads work. Voters decry them, and pundits speculate about backlashes for negativity. But Gingrich can attest to how effective they can be and how dangerous it is to dismiss them. A barrage of attack ads aired by an independent political committee working to elect Romney pushed Gingrich from front-runner to distant fourth-place finisher.

4 Gingrich's statesman posture is over. He won plenty of praise early on for staying positive in debates and decrying infighting that could damage the ultimate nominee against President Barack Obama. After a pro-Romney political committee wounded him in Iowa, Gingrich looks like an attack dog determined to take a big chunk out of Romney.

5 Romney is one lucky politician. First, he avoided heavyweight contenders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie entering the race. Then he had five or six candidates vying to be the Romney alternative, criticizing each other and dividing up the conservative vote. Now, Perry says he's going to stay in at least through South Carolina, which could continue that dynamic. In 2008, a struggling Fred Thompson competed in South Carolina and helped deliver the state to John McCain. Perry could do the same for Romney in 2012.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Five things we learned from the Iowa caucuses 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 10:55pm]
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