GWEN'S TAKE -- December 30, 2011 at 3:04 PM EDT
Peeling the Onion (Or, Why Iowa and New Hampshire Really Matter)
We have by now spent so many weeks consumed with the ups and downs of Republican presidential politics that we are in danger of misgauging its real impact, especially in these early days.
It can be easy to dismiss the Iowa Caucuses. Ask "Presidents" Huckabee and Gephardt how winning there worked for them. Winning the Hawkeye State in 2008 and 1988 respectively turned out to be the high point of their campaigns.
Still, Iowa -- rural and unrepresentative as it may be -- still remains a fine predictor of who gets nominated in the long run. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry all basked in the balloon drop at Democratic conventions. And Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush all dodged confetti at GOP conclaves.
But the reason Iowa and New Hampshire matter has less to do with who wins their caucuses and primary. What they still do effectively is signal to the rest of the nation that it's time to pay attention.
Here are some of the cues to watch for, as drawn from the CNN/ORC poll taken Dec. 21 to 27.
The headlines were all about the horse race. Romney and Santorum up and Gingrich down in Iowa. Romney way up in New Hampshire.
But here are the opinions I found even more interesting when I peeled back the onion. This is what Republican voters seem to really be looking for:
More Republican voters prized "leadership skills and vision" than a candidate's "stance on issues." In Iowa, 49 percent ranked leadership as the most important quality. Fifty-two percent said the same thing in New Hampshire.
That explains why you will continue to hear Romney target President Obama as a nice guy who is just heading down the wrong path. That argument resonates, and even has its own campaign-sponsored website, obamaisntworking.com paid for by Romney.
At the end of virtually every Romney ad and on his home page, voters are likely to see a picture of him with his wife of 42 years, Ann. In Iowa and New Hampshire, his strikingly handsome sons are everywhere. There are five of them.
Contrast that to Gingrich, with his famous multiple marriages. Is it any surprise that when asked which GOPer "best represents the personal characteristics and qualities that you think a President should have," Romney bests everyone -- winning 25 percent of the field in Iowa and 46 percent in New Hampshire?
Can he win?
I say "he," because this is where the lone woman in the competition -- Michele Bachmann -- is mired in single digits. At 41 percent in Iowa and 63 percent in New Hampshire, Romney, by a wide margin, is seen as the candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama. Coming in a distant second place is Gingrich.
This matters because the desire to defeat Barack Obama appears to be the strongest single emotion unifying GOP voters in Iowa and across the nation.
Along with the horse race numbers, those qualities are worth keeping an eye on. You can be sure the Obama campaign is.
Gwen's Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.