So the sun has finally set on Michele Bachmann’s quixotic campaign for president. As much as I personally like Michele and admire her willingness to espouse strong conservative convictions, I never thought that running for president was the proper path for her. She did a much better job serving the cause as a voice of conservative conscience in the House, as a spokesperson in the media, and as a speaker who could always be counted on to fire up a crowd. I hope that she’ll be able to return to these roles in the near future and fill them even more effectively given the visibility and experience she gained through this primary campaign, especially the national debates.
After she won the Ames straw poll in August, I predicted that she had reached her high water mark and that turned out to be true. The largest influence that she had on the race was forcing the premature withdrawal of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty. Given the current state of the field and the obvious desire among conservatives for a viable alternative to Mitt Romney, it’s difficult for me to view that as a positive development. Although you could argue that Pawlenty’s inability to surmount Bachmann’s challenge demonstrated weakness that would have been exploited by other opponents at a later stage.
So now what? At this point, Bachmann’s supporters are likely to splinter among the remaining candidates, with Santorum possibly being the biggest beneficiary. But those numbers aren’t significant enough to make much of a difference. It now seems like a three-way battle between Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry to determine who will emerge as the viable alternative to Romney. Santorum has the momentum coming out of Iowa, Perry has the dough to hang in until at least South Carolina, and it sounds like Gingrich is preparing to launch a scorched earth, take no prisoners counteroffensive against the Romney juggernaut. Whether that will be more of a last gasp effort or an effective line of attack remains to be seen. But even if Gingrich ends up falling short, he could create an opening against Romney that one of the others could exploit.
The campaign is over for Michele Bachmann. But despite what you’re hearing from some quarters, Romney’s victory in Iowa doesn’t mean that it’s time for the other candidates to pack it just yet. While the nomination might indeed be Mitt Romney’s to lose, it would behoove us as conservatives to make sure that he actually has to fight to win it.
UPDATE The NRO editors on the perils that Romney still faces after Iowa:
Romney has never had a commanding lead in the polls and has not inspired much enthusiasm among Republican voters. His rather complacent speech following the caucuses will not inspire more. He may well believe that he faces no serious challenge for the nomination. But the more he shows that he believes this, the less it will be true. He has also won a potentially effective enemy in Newt Gingrich, who seems likely to become a de facto ally of Santorum. On the other hand, Romney might easily counter Gingrich’s petulant complaints about negative campaigning by promising to be just as tough on Obama.
Romney should be careful in his attacks on Santorum. If he disagrees with Santorum’s approach to winning over blue-collar voters — and some of the policies Santorum recommends in that regard deserve criticism — he will nonetheless have to express that disagreement in a way that does not deepen his own difficulty in appealing to them. Romney would be well within his rights to stress his business and executive credentials, and implicitly or explicitly Santorum’s lack thereof, and to make the case that he is a stronger general-election candidate. But if he appears to cooperate in a media campaign to portray social conservatism as extreme, he will weaken himself severely.