The conservative commentariat today is grumpy. And perhaps none is grumpier than Red State's Erick Erickson, who's unhappy not only with the Republicans' eight-vote front-runner, Mitt Romney, but with his newly elevated conservative challenger, Rick Santorum.
Complaining that Santorum is a "big government conservative" in the tradition of George W. Bush, Erickson writes that the former Pennsylvania senator's reputation as a retail politician is vastly overblown. "His campaign was not successful, it's just all the others sucked so bad," he says. Erickson's improbable dream: a renewed effort by one-time Tea Party favorite Rick Perry, who's gone home to Texas and who may be out of the race by the end of the day.
Aside from the impossibly thin margin separating Romney and Santorum, there was nothing about the Iowa caucuses that should have surprised anyone. For days it had been clear that Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul would be the three top finishers. And it remains Romney's central dilemma that even though he seems the likely nominee, the conservatives who comprise the base of the Republican Party can't stand him.
"He has all the king's horses and all the king's men supporting him, the print MSM and most segments on Fox News Channel in his favor, yet for the second time in four years, 75 percent of Iowa caucus-goers rejected him," writes Kellyanne Conway at National Review. (Conway, a political consultant working for Newt Gingrich, nevertheless reserves her strongest praise for Santorum.)
Over at Slate, John Dickerson offers a startling statistic: according to entrance polls, Santorum beat Romney 36 percent to 1 percent among caucus-goers who wanted a true conservative. "Santorum is now the only Flavor of the Week candidate to actually win anything," Dickerson says, "which makes him a genuine threat to Romney, at least for the moment."
So what is a conservative to do? Daniel Larison's response is to grouse. Writing at Pat Buchanan's American Conservative, Larison mocks the notion that any of the Republicans who didn't get into the race, like South Dakota senator John Thune or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, could have stopped the Romney machine. Larison continues:
"It remains true that Romney shouldn't be the nominee, and Republicans will regret nominating him, but it seems extremely unlikely at this stage that anything is going to prevent it from happening."
At National Review, Jim Geraghty fingers the Ames Straw Poll as a principal source of conservative angst, since it prematurely ended the campaign of someone who might actually have beaten Romney:
"The Hawkeye State killed off the chances of a perfectly good candidate, Tim Pawlenty, in favor of his Minnesota rival Michele Bachmann, only to drop her like seventh-period Spanish by the time the actual caucuses rolled around."
Yet if Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, really had that much potential, surely he should have been able to beat Bachmann, who is apparently headed for the exits as I write this. Maybe Pawlenty could have grown if he hadn't been pushed out by a ridiculously early, meaningless test -- or if, despite the Ames result, he'd kept working it, like Santorum, written off by everyone until just a few weeks ago. But in public, Pawlenty came off as being cut from the same cloth as Romney, a bit more conservative perhaps, but even less charismatic, if such a thing is possible.
At the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes predicts that conservatives will now coalesce around Santorum, creating a "one-on-one race" that "is exactly what Romney hoped to avoid at this stage." And at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan bizarrely (not to be redundant) proclaims that Romney emerges from Iowa a stronger candidate because he succeeded in vanquishing Gingrich, "a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something."
The Pollyanna award goes to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who thinks caucus-goers did themselves proud last night. "Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation," he writes, "they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory."
Which sounds like another way of saying -- to echo Pat Caddell and John LeBoutillier on FoxNews.com last night -- that the big winner of the Iowa caucuses was Barack Obama.