Alex Castellanos says Mitt Romney could win Iowa with fewer votes than he got when he lost last time.

Story highlights

Alex Castellanos: Newt Gingrich made the mistake of not responding to negative ads

He says Ron Paul's appeal is largely to libertarians and others who won't vote GOP

Romney campaign failed to tap into source of conservative anger, Castellanos says

Castellanos: Romney's strategy may be perfect for primaries and general election

Editor’s Note: Alex Castellanos is founder of Purple Strategies, a CNN political contributor and a Republican media consultant who worked for MItt Romney in 2008.

CNN  — 

This Tuesday, Iowa’s festival of political courtship ends. Even now, Republican voters are sobering up from an interminable series of disappointing dates, opening crusty eyes, and walking up the aisle for their wedding. Before we ride the rocket-sled into New Hampshire January 10, South Carolina on the 21st and the Florida primary on the 31st, we can glimpse who will be standing at the end.

St. Newt, the Martyr

As any political professional can tell you, there is a peculiar species of candidate, which, like the lemming, is driven to vindicate its existence with its death. This candidate is above politics as others practice it. His inflated self-regard does not allow him to play by rules common to mortal political contenders.

Pure and noble, at least in his own eyes, he cannot lower himself to engage in vulgar attacks that would disqualify his GOP competitors. St. Newt, The Martyr, has lost two dozen points in three weeks as he has been gang-tackled by Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. In response, Gingrich has complained, not counterattacked. Soon, the biting winds of Iowa will teach the former college professor his mistake.

When a candidate loses because voters don’t know him, he can regroup. If he crumbles because they do know him, his campaign has nothing to say. After his collapse in Iowa, Newt Gingrich will have been revealed as a candidate with too much baggage to board the flight to New Hampshire, much less South Carolina or warmer battlegrounds. Gingrich will suffer the cruelest possible fate: irrelevance. His tombstone will read, “They liked him least, who knew him best.”

Alex Castellanos

Ron Paul, quixotically ambiguous

Barely within the realm of the imaginable, in Iowa, is a Ron Paul victory. Paul’s problem? He is playing to a limited audience. There are three kind of Republicans: economic, social issue, and national security conservatives. Ron Paul’s libertarian idealism appeals only to economic conservatives. Though the GOP has harbored isolationist and even pacifist streaks in the past, it does not do so now. On social issues, as well, Ron Paul is running in the wrong party’s contest: His libertarian-speak is the language of permissive, “If it feels good, do it” 1960’s Democratic left.

This year, however, we may witness a rare celestial event: Every star in the GOP heavens may be equally dim. It is remotely possible that all Republican candidates are identically unelectable. That is the geometry Ron Paul needs: Only if all GOP contenders finish tied in a knot, with near indistinguishably poor results, could Paul’s limited but enthusiastic share earn him a razor-thin win.

“Yes, but Ron Paul will bring new voters to the caucuses and re-register them as Republicans,” Paulites tell us. No, he won’t. There is no secret army of Ron Paul warriors on his home planet, waiting to invade the Iowa caucuses. Getting voters to change party registration, the core of their political identity, is monumentally difficult. It’s like asking Redskins fans to wear Cowboy jerseys to RFK stadium. And organizing libertarians is even harder. Organization is what libertarians rebel against.

What would a Paul victory in Iowa mean? A massive boost in the congressman’s fundraising that would fund a fury of negative ads against Mitt Romney. Paul’s potential in subsequent contests is still circumscribed by his Democratic sympathies on social issues and his naivete on foreign policy.

Similarly, a Perry or Santorum win would be good news for Mitt Romney: A candidate who can’t gain the nomination would have dispatched Newt Gingrich, his last serious competitor. Gingrich’s collapse has taken the only plausible scenario for a long campaign off the table.

That leaves only Jon Huntsman, a candidate with unrealized potential, waiting for Romney in New Hampshire. Huntsman will have a short week in what is effectively the former Massachusetts governor’s home state to stop and flip Romney’s steamroller. It seems Republicans will go to bed early this year: Mitt Romney is now favored to win Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida and mercifully shorten this race.

Minister Santorum

So one doctor turns to the other and says, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that the placebo works as well as the real medicines. The bad news is the real medicines don’t work.” This is the story of Rick Santorum. It’s difficult to credit him with stepping forward when it is obvious his competitors have stepped back.

Santorum may pocket the anti-Romney conservative ticket out of Iowa, boosting him in South Carolina, yet it is difficult to see how he broadens his appeal within his party. Santorum still campaigns as if he is behind a church pulpit, not on a political podium. Unless he learns to address the raging economic fire that concerns voters and not the moral meltdown that interests him, he’ll remain a tangential threat.

Oops, he did it too late

Who is the candidate with the highest favorable ratings in Iowa? Rick Perry. Voters feel about Perry, however, as they do about chocolate ice cream: They like both but don’t think either is qualified to be president. If only Perry’s back surgery had gone better; if only he had waited to debate until he was prepared; if only he had been served as well by his first campaign team as he has been by his second. Perry originally took in Newt Gingrich’s homeless campaign team after the former speaker’s initial collapse. It would have been smarter to return them unopened. Or send them to the Romney campaign.

The noncampaign campaign

How is it possible that a presidential contender could fail to tap into the anti-Washington heat broiling his own party and the GOP’s commanding fear about the decline of the country, yet still lead in the polls? Mitt Romney’s non-campaign has done exactly that. Romney’s poll numbers in Iowa, and other states, put him in front but also betray an unprecedented lack of passion.

Few voters intimate they would march through the snow to die at Mt. Romney’s peak. To Romney’s credit, his campaign has still found ways to prosper. It has performed when it has had to. Romney’s campaign and super PAC stepped up to snuff out the Gingrich surge, in confluence with Ron Paul’s and Rick Perry’s devastating attack ads.

With every other candidate disqualified, it is doubtful Iowa’s large contingent of establishment Republicans will shoot a hole in their last life raft. They vote out of habit, not reckless passion. Romney won 29,949 supporters four years ago, earning 25.2% of caucus-goers. If he gets even half of those who previously voted for him, plus half of the nearly 20,000 who voted for Giuliani and McCain but have no moderate GOP candidate to support this year, he’ll take 25,000 votes. That is enough to win a low-turnout contest against splintered opposition.

A low turnout contest is now a near certainty. Iowa’s large undecided vote, this close to the election, does not mean Iowa voters are undecided. It means they don’t care and are not voting. Iowa’s long-term decline in caucus turnout since the 1970’s will continue, producing well under the 115,000 voters who turned out four years ago. This election, which has left no hair pin unturned, could bring us one more surprise: Mitt Romney could win Iowa with fewer votes than he lost with in 2008.

Whether Romney has run a brilliantly passive race or a fortunate one does not matter. Passionless, but not hollow, his campaign has been as buoyant as Styrofoam. Romney may continue to float downriver to the nomination, full of holes, on a rigid structure of air.

If he wins Iowa, as now expected, only two significant tests could derail Romney in January. They are not primaries or caucuses. First, we could see what happens if a pile of negative, radioactive material is dumped upon Romney’s campaign, an unfortunate occurrence it has so far avoided. Second, we may also learn what happens to Romney if the ruptured right consolidates against Team Mitt.

It is entirely possible and even likely, however, that Mitt Romney is luckier than a four-time lottery winner. His noncampaign campaign may sail through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida without, in either regard, being tested. His opponents may all remain in the race through Florida, fracturing the right into impotency. And the Sunshine State is a big, expensive battleground for a TV war. It costs a lot of money just to lose in Florida, much less fund a come-from-behind victory. Romney’s opponents will have little time and less cash for anti-Romney ads.

This gives us a preview of November 2012. Romney’s noncampaign campaign may also be a brilliant strategy for the general election, the perfect way to receive a billion dollar’s worth of negative bullets from Team Obama. Styrofoam is light but stronger than it looks. A few more holes won’t sink it. And styrofoam runs neither hot nor cold: It is hard to love but, for the same reason, hard to hate. A Romney candidacy is more likely to make the general election a referendum on Obama’s economy, not a choice between the candidates.

That seems to be what team Romney is counting on. A Styrofoam campaign for president? Wish I’d thought of that. At the moment, I would wager $10,000 it works.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.