Obama may be biggest Iowa winnner


After a dramatic, confusing night of suspense in the Republican Party's Iowa caucuses, the big winner may well have been a Democrat: Barack Obama.

The US president's re-election campaign had reason to smile today as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled to a near dead heat in the caucuses that kicked off the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, emerges from Iowa with his front-runner status intact, his well-funded campaign ready for a months-long fight.

But his razor-thin margin over Mr Santorum - a social conservative who ran a low-budget campaign with little advertising - reinforces persistent doubts about Mr Romney's ability to win over his party's conservative base.

It also increases the chances that Mr Romney's still-likely march to the Republican nomination will not be the quick kill Mr Romney has hoped for, analysts said today.

For an Obama campaign that has long operated on the assumption that it will face Mr Romney in the November 6th election, that is good news.

"Democratic heavyweights are quietly celebrating tonight," David Gergen, a former adviser to two Republican and two Democratic presidents, told Reuters. "They see the presumed [Republican] nominee, Mitt Romney, unable to close the deal and a Republican electorate not only uncertain, but lacking great enthusiasm."

As Mr Romney continues to tussle with Republican foes in upcoming primaries, Mr Gergen said, "Obama's campaign - which otherwise might be in trouble" amid concerns about the economy and government spending - "has time to raise money and hone its message."

For Mr Romney, the good news in Iowa was that the two candidates who seemed in best position to carry out a long campaign against him - Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry - did not get a boost from the caucuses.

Mr Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, finished fourth and leaves Iowa stewing over seeing his status atop public opinion polls toppled by biting TV ads put out by an independent group that supports Mr Romney.

Starting with the New Hampshire primary on January 10th and continuing on to contests in South Carolina and Florida, Mr Gingrich has vowed to cast Mr Romney as too moderate for most Republican voters.

Mr Romney is heavily favoured to win in New Hampshire, but Mr Gingrich has led recent polls in South Carolina and Florida. Mr Perry, the Texas governor, stumbled to a fifth-place finish in Iowa and is returning home to "assess" his campaign.

A key question now is whether Mr Santorum, who has little national campaign structure or money after making Iowa the focus of his effort, can turn himself into a nationally appealing, anti-Romney alternative for conservative voters.

Mr Santorum, who peppers his speeches with religious and anti-abortion references, will also have to prove that he can stretch his appeal beyond the most conservative elements of the Republican Party.

The Iowa result sets up a fascinating showdown on January 21st in South Carolina, another state with a strong Republican conservative electorate. There, Mr Romney - presumably after winning New Hampshire - will face a feisty Mr Gingrich, who is from neighbouring Georgia.

Mr Gingrich is buying ads that call the former governor a "Massachusetts moderate." Moreover, in two debates in New Hampshire this weekend, Mr Gingrich will have a chance to take aim at Mr Romney over what Mr Gingrich has characterised at untrue and unfair attacks by his rival's supporters.

If Mr Santorum can quickly put together an organisation in South Carolina to build support among influential evangelical Christians, he also could be a factor there. His effort could be helped by the withdrawal of Mr Perry, who has also targeted conservative Christian voters.

Otherwise Mr Santorum could fade from contention, as was the case with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the evangelical-backed winner in Iowa in 2008 who could not sustain the momentum from that victory.

Also likely to contend in South Carolina will be Texas Representative Ron Paul, a libertarian with intense support from younger voters and independents who ran a strong third in Iowa.

Mr Paul is not widely viewed as a possible winner of the Republican nomination because his positions - which include dramatic defence cuts and an isolationist foreign policy - are opposed by most party members.

From Mr Romney's view, analysts said, the question will be whether conservative Republican primary voters remain divided between his rival candidates - which he would welcome - or one main challenger emerges.

Other analysts say Mr Romney has to be prepared for sharp jabs by an inspired Mr Gingrich - attacks that could eventually wind up aiding the Obama campaign's efforts to define Mr Romney as an opportunist who has changed his positions on a range of issues, including health care reform.

"What comes out of Iowa is not a clear picture," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. "Romney is a guy who got 25 per cent of the vote four years ago. There is a lot of incentive [for the other Republicans] to keep going ."