Now that real voters in Iowa have actually made real choices, two things are increasingly clear about the Republican race. Mitt Romney has the organization, money and ruthlessness to win the nomination. He also has alienated Hispanic voters and failed to generate enough electricity to light up even an energy-saving bulb.
Bottom line: Both sides have a plausible path to victory in November. And the outlook for President Obama is a bit brighter than it was six months ago.
Romney clearly learned something at Harvard Business School about the value of long-term planning. Using Obama's campaign as a model, he's figured out that Iowa and New Hampshire get far more attention than they deserve. By contesting primaries all over the country and building a strong base of delegates, a candidate can survive short-term setbacks and still win.
Romney understands this math. Recent Republican history is littered with wannabes -- Mike Huckabee, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson -- who flared briefly in the early states but quickly flamed out, suffocated by a lack of organization and money. Rick Santorum, despite his strong showing in Iowa, seems likely to join that list. Romney does not.
Team Romney understands the new landscape reshaped by recent Supreme Court decisions. Super PACs can now raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, as long as they don't officially consult with the candidates they're supporting. But they don't have to.
Longtime Romney supporters, who know exactly what he's thinking and planning, have set up Restore Our Future, a group that swamped Newt Gingrich under a deluge of negative ads. Newt even squawked that he was being "Romney-boated" -- a reference to the vicious "swift boat" attacks on John Kerry in 2004. Obama can expect the same treatment.
For all the talk about tea party power, the Republicans still tend to pick the most familiar face, the next in line. The insurgents who did run -- from Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain to Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich -- turned out to be monumental disappointments. And Republicans are so desperate to beat Obama that many of them are willing to ignore Romney's spotty conservative credentials. According to caucus entrance polls, half the Iowa voters who thought the most important quality in a candidate was being able to win in November picked Mitt. Unemployment remains Obama's biggest weakness, and Romney ran strongly among caucus-goers who tab the economy as the top issue and prefer a president with business experience.
But those advantages cannot erase Romney's huge vulnerabilities. He is, to put it charitably, a bore, a stiff, the "oh, all right" candidate -- a Republican version of Al Gore, who used to joke that he was so dull, his Secret Service code name was "Al Gore." And with all Romney's millions, he still won only 25 percent in Iowa, the same figure as four years ago and his upper limit in most national polls.
Arthur Doenecke, a Romney backer in Iowa, summed up this passion gap for The New York Times: "He's just, to me, not a real person. He has the same expression on his face, always looks the same, acts the same. He's almost robotic in his mannerisms. He has no warmth. I find it difficult to connect. But I think of who's left and can beat Obama, he probably has the best chance."
For all of his rigid self-control, Romney can make mistakes -- betting Perry $10,000, calling corporations people, suggesting that the housing market should hit rock bottom. More seriously, he has decided to demagogue the issue of immigration by screaming "amnesty" whenever an opponent tries to sound reasonable.
That plays well with primary voters (the Iowa electorate was 98 percent white), but Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in the country and could hold the key to many swing states, from Colorado and Nevada to New Mexico and Florida. Obama won two out of three Latino votes in 2008, and a recent Pew poll shows him winning the same margin over Romney this time.
Finally, there's Romney's past, preserved indelibly on YouTube. His own ad campaign against Gingrich in Iowa showed that negative commercials can be very effective, and the Democrats are already preparing a scorched earth strategy that will highlight Romney's record of closing companies and firing workers during his tenure at Bain Capital.
One disgruntled employee, Randy Johnson, showed up in Iowa (thanks to the Democrats) and told reporters that Romney put "profit before people," adding: "I think he is out of touch with the average person." The man who "Romney-boated" Gingrich into oblivion is about to get "Bain-boated" with both barrels.