Today, the polls in Iowa are close enough that it's possible for any number of candidates to pull out a win: Romney, Ron Paul, the fading Newt Gingrich, and the rising Rick Santorum. On Wednesday, Elephant Watcher wrote that Santorum was well-positioned to make his long-awaited surge, but that he was running out of time. A few more weeks and Santorum might skyrocket in the polls by gathering together the Evangelical voters like Huckabee did in 2008. New polls were released late Wednesday showing the movement occur: Santorum broke the 10% barrier for the first time and moved into third place with about 15%. This was what Santorum was waiting for all along, but it would have been much more helpful if it happened even a week ago. It's a race against the clock--but Santorum could squeak out a win with a percentage in the 20s, as opposed to Huckabee's 34% win in 2008.
Still, Romney is in the lead, and is the only candidate not being attacked at the moment. Paul is being attacked by Gingrich and others; Gingrich is still receiving some flak from leftover attack ads aimed against him; Bachmann is being called on to drop out early; even late-bloomer Santorum has already been hit by some new attack ads from Rick Perry's campaign. Why is Romney getting a pass?
The answer is that the Anti-Romney candidates are looking past Iowa toward South Carolina now. Even if Romney won Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has been weak in South Carolina. That's the battleground to determine who gets to play the role of the chief Anti-Romney. While a Romney win in both Iowa and New Hampshire would be devastating to the rest of the candidates, they believe it's survivable--but only the top-ranking Anti-Romneys will survive it. There's still going to be room, because many voters don't want Romney, but those voters will coalesce around one or two Anti-Romneys at most.
By this point, Bachmann and Perry have written off a win in Iowa as impossible. Gingrich is probably getting that sense, too. If they can't win Iowa, their mission is to make sure they don't get beaten by other Anti-Romneys. Perry will be hurt more by losing to Santorum or Paul than by losing to Romney. Few of Perry's voters see Romney as an alternative, but if Santorum beats Perry, they might jump ship because they find Santorum acceptable.
Elephant Watcher believes that if multiple Anti-Romneys are close in Iowa's results, as opposed to one Anti-Romney getting a big win, we could see a similar situation develop in South Carolina. If that happens, the Anti-Romneys will still be fighting amongst themselves to determine who gets to be the alternative to Romney. This would infuriate many Tea Partiers, who will demand to know why Romney isn't being vetted. Meanwhile, Romney would keep his establishment/moderate constituency to himself, left in relative peace. After South Carolina, though, all the guns will be aimed in his direction.