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A fight for the soul of the GOP

By Maria Cardona, CNN Contributor
updated 11:40 AM EST, Wed February 22, 2012
Mitt Romney speaks as his wife Ann Romney and their sons look on after the very close finish in the Iowa caucus.
Mitt Romney speaks as his wife Ann Romney and their sons look on after the very close finish in the Iowa caucus.
  • Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum virtually tied for first place in Iowa
  • Maria Cardona says the contest shows Romney can't make the sale to conservatives
  • She says he has swung right to win their votes, which would hurt him in general election

Editor's note: Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

(CNN) -- Tuesday night's tight contest for the top spot in the Iowa Republican caucuses reflects the ongoing tension that exists within the Republican Party.

This struggle between the conservative religious voters -- whose voice is strong and loud in Iowa and was represented by Rick Santorum -- and the more moderate, mainstream voters, represented by Mitt Romney, is indicative of a fight for the soul of the Republican Party.

What is so interesting is that four years ago, Romney's 25% share of the vote was not nearly enough to give him the victory. But this year, that same 25% is enough to keep him alive.

Maria Cardona
Maria Cardona

While his campaign will spin that he was not really playing in Iowa, he cannot be totally happy, because the Iowa results cannot be read as anything than a continued rejection of Romney by conservative GOP voters.

Regardless, as long as the anybody-but-Romney vote is split among several candidates, and the longer most of them stay in the race, the better it is for Romney -- who can thereby win primaries with far less than a majority.

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Iowa caucuses: Behind the numbers

Social conservatives made very clear in Iowa that it was important for them to take a stand and vote for someone they could feel good about -- someone who in their hearts and consciences they could wholeheartedly defend -- rather than give their votes to someone they did not like and did not trust.

Again, this is not good news for Romney. He is like the bitter pill that conservatives refuse to take as long as there is still a viable alternative.

It also indicates that Romney still has an uphill battle to convince the majority of GOP voters that he is the one who can fully represent core conservative values and principles. He was not able to make the sale in Iowa. Will he be able to make it in upcoming states where conservatives also have an important voice?

Romney has made a career of changing his stances to match the prevailing political winds. In 2008, that lack of core political values cost him the nomination. Are Republicans desperate enough this time around to support someone who has marketed himself as perhaps not the perfect conservative, but at least the best bet against Barack Obama?

If that is the case, the problem for Romney will be that general election voters will see right through this farce, even as conservative GOP voters have here in Iowa.

He will have a tough time making the case that he is the best candidate on the economy, since when he was governor of Massachusetts, his state was the third-worst in the country on job creation.

When he was head of Bain Capital, he destroyed more American jobs than he created, while making millions for his investors -- just ask Randy Johnson, a factory worker who was laid off because Bain Capital closed the factory where he worked.

Romney has also moved so far to the right on other critical issues that it will be hard for him to reconcile those positions with those of more mainstream general election voters. And what about the importance of Latino voters? Let's not forget that no GOP candidate will see the inside of "La Casa Blanca" without at least 40% of the Hispanic vote, according to Bush pollster Matthew Dowd.

No GOP candidate even bothered to visit the Latino-rich population towns in Iowa, and Romney has already declared he would veto the Dream Act if he becomes president. So let's be clear -- the GOP can say goodbye to the Latino vote in the general election.

This overall tension within the GOP between the mainstream and the extreme was in full display Tuesday night in Iowa. As such, the biggest winner of the Iowa caucuses by far is Obama. As I saw someone tweet Tuesday night -- somewhere in Iowa, the Obama campaign is smiling.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maria Cardona.