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For Mitt Romney, It’s Still Divide and Conquer

“Romney surges in Iowa on issue of electability” proclaimed the odd headline on the front page of Thursday’s Washington Post, citing a late December CNN/Time/ORC International poll showing Mitt Romney at 25 percent, leading Rep. Ron Paul (22 percent) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (16 percent) in the important initial GOP test.

Two earlier CNN/Time/ORC polls had Romney at 20 percent (in late November/early December) and at 24 percent (in late October), so it’s hard to see exactly how the former Massachusetts governor has “surged.”

Still, it’s clear that expectations in Iowa have changed recently, both for the media and for the Romney campaign.

For months, Romney’s inability to get more than 25 percent in surveys of likely Iowa caucuses attendees has been cited as the reason he can’t win Tuesday’s caucuses. Now, however, the former Massachusetts governor’s 25 percent showing in the CNN/Time/ORC poll and 24 percent showing in the new Des Moines Register survey suddenly look impressive, since anti-Romney voters have been unable to unite behind a single alternative.

With Paul showing strength among libertarians and four other hopefuls — Santorum, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — drawing various amounts of support from conservatives, Romney may need only a quarter of the vote to win, exactly the same percentage he received four years ago when he finished behind conservative Mike Huckabee’s 34 percent.

Romney could still benefit from the perception that he is the most electable Republican. But even if the former governor does not win, he looks poised for a surprisingly good showing in a state in which he was not expected to compete just a few months ago.

Paul’s strength has been a boon to Romney, who suddenly looks like a mainstream conservative compared with the Texan’s libertarian views. And Romney could benefit from the view that only he can stop Paul from winning the caucuses.

Somewhere along the way, every candidate in the race not named Romney concluded that the caucuses were not about defeating the former Massachusetts governor but, instead, were about finishing ahead of everyone else. That meant that Romney could generally fly above the barrage of attacks that Paul, Perry, Santorum and Bachmann were directing at each other and at Gingrich.

The one Republican who has avoided incoming fire (so far) has been Santorum, who until a few days ago was a threat to no one. But now, desperate to find someone to stop Romney, social conservatives have turned to the only Republican they have not already embraced, and that is the former Pennsylvania Senator.

Santorum’s emergence as a contender in Iowa carries very little risk for Romney. The Pennsylvanian simply doesn’t have much of a campaign outside Iowa, and his legislative record is only now being dissected by his opponents and the media.

As one non-aligned Republican observer said to me recently, “Romney is much better off with Santorum as his principal foe than Perry or Gingrich.  Santorum is almost exclusively a social issues candidate, and has little fundraising ability. Like Huckabee [in 2008], his appeal outside Iowa will be limited.”

Romney victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would give him considerable momentum, though you can bet that as conservative candidates drop out of the contest, Romney likely will find himself being embarrassed in later caucuses and primaries as social conservative voters look to support the last conservative standing against the former Massachusetts governor.

After victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, a win by Romney in South Carolina would end the fight for the GOP nomination. While the Palmetto State is known for its conservatism, it also tends to support “establishment” candidates. Bob Dole won it over insurgent Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the state’s primary in 2008, albeit with only a third of the vote in a multicandidate race. Romney drew 15 percent in South Carolina four years ago, placing behind McCain and Huckabee and in a virtual tie with Fred Thompson.

Of course, given the rollercoaster nature of the race and the limits of Romney’s appeal, it’s probably wise to expect at least one more twist and turn in the GOP race before it’s completely over.

If Romney does deliver a quick knockout, it would further reinforce the Republican trend that the early frontrunner wins the party’s nomination, and it would be a feather in the cap of Romney’s strategists, who focused their attention on New Hampshire but kept one eye on Iowa, ready to jump into the state heavily if and when the race’s dynamic presented their candidate with an opportunity.

A quick end to the GOP race would be a problem for President Barack Obama’s campaign. Republicans would have plenty of time to rally behind their nominee, who could husband resources for the fall campaign. At that point, attention would turn to possible third-party candidates, who could add yet another dose of uncertainty to an already strange 2012 campaign.

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