All year long the story of the Republican race for president was Mitt Romney and a rotating cast playing the role of Someone Else.
On Tuesday night, Someone Else was played by two candidates: Rick Santorum, the longtime champion of social conservative issues that were supposedly taking a backseat in this jobs-centric presidential race, and Ron Paul, the noninterventionist Texan who represents an almost 180-degree turn from the Republican Party’s direction.
The down-to-the-wire result between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, with Mr. Paul close behind, ensured that the primary contests would be fought aggressively for additional weeks or months. Iowa is an unpredictable starting gate of presidential politics, and Mr. Romney retains many strengths, including a formidable position in New Hampshire, where he has comfortably led in polls all year.
But more than anything else, the Iowa caucuses cast in electoral stone what has played out in the squishy world of polls and punditry for the last 12 months: The deep ideological divisions among Republicans continue to complicate their ability to focus wholly on defeating President Obama, and to impede Mr. Romney’s efforts to overcome the internal strains and win the consent if not the heart of the party.
Mr. Romney may have the most money, the best organization and, often, the best poll numbers in hypothetical matchups against Mr. Obama. But he has not yet been able to tap into the antigovernment, populist zeal in the party or convince more traditional conservatives that he is an acceptable standard-bearer in an election that much of the right hopes can not only unseat Mr. Obama but permanently shift the nation’s values and direction.
Mr. Santorum’s strong performance could force Mr. Romney to engage on potentially divisive social issues to a degree he has largely been able to avoid this year. Mr. Paul’s third-place finish ensures that his anti-foreign intervention, pro-drug legalization, libertarian platform will continue to share the stage at a time when Mr. Romney would like to be moving toward general election voters.
Still, for now, the intensity of the desire to unseat Mr. Obama may be Mr. Romney’s most important ally, overcoming whatever qualms various strains of conservatives have about him. Surveys of Iowans entering caucus sites on Tuesday night showed that slightly more people thought it most important to choose a candidate that can beat Mr. Obama than one who is a “true conservative.”
“The key is not whether Romney can unite the party, but whether Obama can unite the party,” said Richard Land, the head of the ethics commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. ”And the answer to that is a resounding yes.”
Mr. Romney’s showing here was strong enough to leave intact his plan to tough out a long delegate-accumulation campaign if that is what it takes to become the nominee. And Iowa results have a habit of being quickly erased by those in New Hampshire, where polls show Mr. Romney with consistent and substantial leads.
But even a resounding victory there will leave him facing the need to knit together a party searching for an identity in ways not seen since the aftermath of Watergate.
Mr. Romney is seeking to take control of a party still in search of a post-Bush identity and divided into factions. Republicans were energized by the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010. But the movement’s influence on Congressional Republicans — its willingness to press its principles right up to the brink of a government shutdown, make life difficult for its own party’s leaders and take provocative positions on issues like Medicare — have also sparked a countermovement from the left focused on income inequality, and provided Mr. Obama another chance to occupy the center.
The question is whether Mr. Romney can use the next three contests to get over all of that, persuade his party to coalesce behind him, and get on with the business of defeating Mr. Obama. Even some of Mr. Romney’s most enthusiastic backers do not pretend to believe he will necessarily emerge as a transformational figure who will define Republicanism the way Ronald Reagan — and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush — did.
Declaring the Reagan-Bush era over as of 2008, former Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, a Romney booster, said, “We’re moving to something new and I don’t know if Governor Romney, if he’s the nominee, will be that new person or if he’ll be a transitional person.”
But Mr. Talent argued that Mr. Romney was the most capable, electable and acceptable candidate for Republicans at large, and argued the party should focus on getting him into office and then return to the internal deliberations about its direction.
“The whole Tea Party movement has tremendous influence and has a passionate group of activists who don’t like what is going on but beyond that, don’t necessarily agree on what they do want done,” Mr. Talent said. “For others who aren’t sure the direction they want to go in, he’s at least the person to put your trust in as a capable person who can win and who they do trust will address the tremendous problems we’re facing now.”
In essence, Mr. Romney is up against some of the same populist, antigovernment, antitax forces that buffeted Republicans in their moderate-establishment versus insurgent-conservative battles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Where the more rebellious and conservative elements in the party got behind Barry Goldwater in 1964 to upset Nelson Rockefeller and then got behind Mr. Reagan in 1976 to challenge Gerald Ford and finally to get him the presidency in 1980, they have had no single standard-bearer this year.
Republicans entered the campaign divided into three strains that are now personified by the three men who led in the last polls before the caucuses: Mr. Romney representing the moneyed, establishment chamber of commerce wing; Mr. Santorum representing the classic social conservative bloc and Mr. Paul the libertarian, noninterventionist, small-government wing.
Mr. Romney may have alienated his opponents’ conservative supporters with his previous position favoring abortion rights, but he also has attributes neither of them have — a sprawling, professional campaign, a robust fund-raising network, and the best-financed “super PAC” in the field right now, not to mention perceived electability.
“Every pro-life person in America has a soft spot for Rick Santorum — most pro-lifers would tell you that they would trust Rick Santorum with their life,” said Mr. Land. “The problem has been he hasn’t been able to raise the money to be a viable candidate until now.”
The conservative direct mail pioneer and activist Richard Viguerie predicted that the pack would continue to seek out a more ideologically pure standard-bearer this year than it did in accepting Senator John McCain as the Republican nominee in 2008.
“Romney has just seemed to have gone out of his way to try to get this nomination without giving conservatives anything, and that’s troubling to a lot of conservatives,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to go away quietly into that long dark nominating fight — I‘d be surprised if the conservatives didn’t mount a serious effort to derail Romney".