Gingrich, Paul, Romney and Santorum (AP Photos)
Gingrich, Paul, Romney and Santorum (AP Photos)

BY KYLE SCHAFER, Staff Writer

Primary season is already underway for the Republican field of presidential candidates, and after two races, it looks as if one candidate, Mitt Romney, has become the front-runner.

The calendar had just turned over to the new year. Some people had yet to take the Christmas lights off their houses, New Year’s resolutions hadn’t had the time to be broken, and the people of Iowa were already caucusing for their favorite presidential candidates. The Iowa caucuses were held on January 3rd, making them the first in the nation this year.

The winner in Iowa usually gets the biggest boost. After months of polling and seeing one candidate as the front-runner, then another, and then another, votes are finally recorded, and delegates are awarded. On that cold Tuesday, a winner was not declared. It took until the wee hours of Wednesday the 4th to declare Mitt Romney an eight vote victor over Rick Santorum, each candidate claiming 25% of the vote, with Ron Paul finishing a close third with 21%, and Newt Gingrich a distant fourth with 13%.

The top three could all claim a victory. For Romney, it was a straight-up win, and the majority share (13) of Iowa’s 25 Republican delegates. For Santorum, who had been inching up in the polls, it was a moral victory, plus the other 12 delegates. For Ron Paul, it was a solid third place showing for a man who has often been thought of as a fringe candidate.

Santorum, whose name everyone should look up on Google, went from a candidate who regularly polled in the single digits in December to the darling of the caucus night, and came within a hair of winning the state outright. And though he credited his strong showing to sweater vests, Santorum actually draws his support from the Evangelical Christian crowd, and would likely have been the main benefactor had Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race, as many speculated, after his fifth place showing in Iowa.

A week later, in New Hampshire, Romney took a firm grasp on the nomination, when he won a share of first place in the town of Dixville Notch. Romney, who tied with former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, took a whopping two votes of the six cast in the small town of nine. The three other votes were cast in the Democratic primary for President Barack Obama. Dixville Notch is often seen as a bellwether for the nation, as every Republican candidate going back to the 1956 election to have won at least a share of first place has gone on to become the Republican nominee.

Later that night, Romney went on win the state with 39% of the vote. Paul took 23% of the vote, with Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to focus on the Granite State, finishing in third with 17%, and Gingrich and Santorum in a virtual tie for fourth place at 9%.

New Hampshire gave Romney a commanding lead, but Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum all have legitimate reasons to believe they could surpass him. Santorum is sitting in second place in the delegate count, with the next two primaries being held in traditionally conservative Christian states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After a poor showing in New Hampshire, anything short of third will likely end Santorum’s chances.

Gingrich, after two lackluster performances, is close in the early polling for the January 21st South Carolina primary. Anything short of a win (or very close second) would likely end Gingrich’s chances of winning the party’s nod.

Paul has put together back-to-back solid performances, netting over a fifth of the vote in each of the first two primaries, and claiming the second-highest popular vote total. His platform of personal liberty and broad financial reform has resonated with a significant portion of the Republican voters, and second place is his to lose, while first place is his to win.
With South Carolina coming up this Saturday, the race is going to start to get ugly. In recent history, campaign ads have turned negative once the race entered the Palmetto State. In 2000, the voters were famously “push polled” into thinking that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.

And then there is the interesting case of one of South Carolina’s favorite native sons: Stephen Colbert. For the second election cycle in a row, Colbert is giving serious (used liberally, here) consideration to running for president in his home state. He was polling around 5% in some polls before he even began discussing it on his TV show, and is likely to poll higher among younger voters, especially in college towns. This could draw votes away from Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. The question is not if there will be an impact, but how large of an impact.

It is almost certain that the nation will have a much clearer picture of the race after the South Carolina primary.