What John Kerry and Mike Huckabee don’t teach us about what’s happening in Iowa now

Ron Paul in Le Mars. (Gage Skidmore)
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Ben Jacobs

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DES MOINES—It’s tempting to say that there are no new stories in the Iowa caucuses, and that the likeliest ones to emerge from Tuesday’s G.O.P. caucuses have been written before.

The first already-written story is from 2004, in which an awkward patrician from Massachusetts manages against expectations to achieve victory, when caucus-goers decide that he is the best bet to defeat a polarizing president.

The second is from 2008: A pious social conservative with little money manages to triumph over a split field through a successful under-the-radar tour of small-town Iowa coffee shops and Pizza Ranches.

But Mitt Romney isn’t John Kerry and Rick Santorum is no Mike Huckabee.

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Surprisingly, Romney seems to be eliciting less enthusiasm here than even Kerry did in 2004 (I went to college in Iowa, and did get-out-the-vote work on a volunteer basis for the Kerry campaign) and Santorum’s retail skills are relatively weak compared to Huckabee’s.

Romney and Santorum have compensated for their shortcomings with different advantages.

Although the short-hand history for the 2004 caucuses is that Kerry won because he seemed “more electable” than Dean among die-hard Democrats eager to defeat George W. Bush, Kerry also had a highly effective ground game in place in Iowa. As a result, he was able to muster enthusiasm from particular pockets of Iowans, like veterans, who related to his Vietnam service in those pre-Swift Boat days, and somewhat surprisingly, college students, who were attracted in part by the fact that Kerry had a strong record on environmental issues.

In contrast, the Romney events I’ve seen don’t seem to be attracting many people who have made affirmative choices about him. Rather, they’ve given up on other candidates and have come to see him as the best and possibly only available means of defeating Barack Obama. If Ron Paul supporters are classic-car freaks who spend countless hours tinkering with their car’s engine, Mitt Romney attracts the equivalent of Ford Taurus buyers, people who just want a box on wheels to get them to their ultimate destination. (In fact, the most enthusiastic Romney supporter I’ve met so far has been a banker with neatly combed hair. While this may be a natural demographic for Romney, it’s just not a huge one here.)

Romney’s other big asset is the amount of money being spent on his behalf, mostly by super P.A.C.s. It is difficult to watch television or listen to local conservative talk radio here without seeing or hearing an ad from, or on behalf of, Romney. In particular, the Romney offensive has contributed to the decline of Newt Gingrich, who complained about this unfair assault at a New Year’s Eve press conference in Atlantic, Iowa.

Romney already enjoys a natural advantage over the other candidates among establishment-type Republican donors. But thanks also to the virtually unregulated spending of the outside groups, which didn’t exist in their current form in any previous election, no other candidate in the history of the caucuses has been able to bring to bear the financial superiority that Romney has had over the rest of the field. It’s one major reason that the former Massachusetts governor is now even in a position to win Iowa, a state that he had written off until recently.

And then there’s Rick Santorum, who has put in a consistent effort in Iowa over the past year, but whose campaigning hasn’t paid off until recently.

Although Santorum, like Huckabee, has concentrated on winning the support of social conservatives, he was not a natural fit for that demographic. For one thing, Santorum is a Catholic, unlike Huckabee, a former Protestant pastor. For another, he lacks Huckabee’s charm and skill at retail politics. Santorum comes across as earnest but insidery, prone to talking Washingtonese and most comfortable with details of the legislative process that tend not to excite caucus-goers.

But the secret to Santorum’s success is the fact that his conservative-Republican orthodoxy makes him hard to criticize, in the context of a G.O.P. primary. In fact, a flier circulated outside a Santorum event in Marshalltown on Friday attacked his pro-life record because he had campaigned in the past for pro-choice Republicans like Christie Whitman and Arlen Specter. There just isn’t much there. Meanwhile, the other potential social-conservative standard-bearers have collapsed: Rick Perry seemed too intellectually challenged by the scope of a national campaign, Michele Bachmann seemed too erratic to be entrusted with power and Herman Cain turned out to be, well, Herman Cain.

So the question Santorum’s candidacy answers here, from an Iowa-political-science perspective, may end up being whether it’s possible to succeed if you have the charm of a probate attorney but have checked all the appropriate policy boxes. He likened himself in debates as “old steady Eddie,” the reliable fallback guy who girls settle for when their original, flashier dates let them down. Conservatives in Iowa, he hopes, are going to get real and settle.

Of course, none of this makes mention of one of the other first-tier contenders in Iowa: Ron Paul. The Texas congressman is currently second in the polls and has a relatively consistent level of support. However, he is by far the most polarizing candidate. For every devoted Ron Paul acolyte, there is an Iowa conservative (or two, or three) who has deep objections to his foreign policy or anti- position on the “war on drugs” or simply think he’s nuts. Needless to say, if Paul wins, it will not fit neatly into any narrative from the past two elections, other than to kick off the familiar post-Iowa debate, with perhaps more intensity than ever before, about whether it makes any sense for this state to maintain so much influence over the primary process.

Even the nature of the caucuses this year will be different than in the past. Caucuses are increasingly held in centralized locations like high schools rather than at a different site for each precinct. Among other reasons for this is the fact that Iowa has experienced a significant amount of precinct-consolidation over the past decade as the state’s rural townships depopulate; it simply does not make financial sense for each one to have its own polling location. There are also the demographic changes that have shifted an increasing proportion of the Republican vote from rural and traditionally Republican counties to the sprawling suburbs of Des Moines, replete with white-collar workers and mega-churches. The changes may not be as obvious to outsiders as urban renewal or a wave of immigrants is in a city, but it alters the political landscape just as fundamentally.

We’re a day away from a result. And whatever it is, it will be the result of a Iowa caucus that is unlike any that has come before.

Ben Jacobs is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe and is filing dispatches from Iowa for Capital throughout the week.