The PJ Tatler

A Playoff Atmosphere in Iowa

So I jump into my rental Ford Fiesta at the Des Moines airport, a little party on wheels, wake up the iPhone and try popping in the address for the hotel so I can drive there without ending up in Wisconsin. The GPS doesn’t respond. I guessed that maybe I’d gone outside the realm of our satellite fleet, but no, it was just a server hiccup.

Get to the hotel, check in, walk back outside to move the car and on the way in is NBC’s David Gregory. This is definitely Des Moines, with the caucus happening tomorrow. The weather is cold but clear and expected to stay that way.

Travel days tend to be long and, if they’re good travel days, mostly uneventful. Days in airports tend to blur between cat naps, unremarkable lunch at one of the franchises that own the terminals, and jockeying for a spot around the charge center to top off the phone. I caught a passing cell phone conversation during the long layover at DFW. A lady from somewhere on her way to elsewhere was telling someone on the other end that she had just toured Cowboys Stadium. It is a good time of year to do that. It’s not like the tourists would get in the way of prepping for a playoff game or anything.

What’s happening here in Iowa tomorrow is a bit like a playoff game, but more baseball than football. In football, you lose once and you go home, while in baseball, you can lose the first game or two and still come back and win. Mitt Romney has been the pitcher facing off against candidate after candidate at the plate. Each has had their turn at bat but none so far has been able to round the bases. Lately it has been Rick Santorum’s turn, before that it was Ron Paul’s and New Gingrich’s and Rick Perry’s and Herman Cain’s and Michele Bachmann’s. Romney may get behind in the count but things keep breaking his way. A win tomorrow and he’s ahead in the series in what amounts to a road game, since he only started seriously competing for Iowa relatively late, and Michele Bachmann was born here.

A win here tomorrow doesn’t end the primaries in Romney’s favor but it probably does end the primaries for at least a couple of candidates. For Michele Bachmann Iowa is probably her last turn at bat, if she can’t climb off the bottom of the vote. If Santorum fades from second or third where he is in that last Register poll, he may be done too, while a top three finish probably keeps him in the race to South Carolina. Jon Huntsman isn’t competing here and so isn’t banking on any kind of showing at all, and he’s unlikely to get one. He’s already planning on upsetting in New Hampshire, despite Romney’s comfortable lead there. Rick Perry has the money to continue on no matter what happens tomorrow, but worse than fifth could make things tough from the optics perspective. The question all day has been whether he sets up shop in New Hampshire or pours all his effort into South Carolina. An email just sent out by the campaign gives off a very strong hint: Perry is attending four events on January 4, all in the Palmetto State. In fact according to the email, he’s there through the end of the week.

Not to get melodramatic or anything, but the caucuses tomorrow put a whole lot of power in the hands of a subset of the voters in one single, small state. Iowa’s Republicans have it within their hands to make Mitt Romney all but inevitable, while also killing off or empowering or resurrecting other candidates. What they do with Ron Paul, currently second or third in most polls but within striking distance of winning while holding views on national security that put him well outside the GOP mainstream, will say much. In fact, a Paul or Santorum win or one-two finish, and it’s very much game on in the Republican primary.

Update: So I head downstairs to see what’s happening and to get some dinner, and ride down with former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. He’s here in Iowa stumping for Newt Gingrich.