The Iowa caucuses are overhyped and overrated in terms of determining America's choice for next leader of the free world, the attention they get saying more about the state of a beleaguered media than the Hawkeye State. What's an easier way to fill space and time in otherwise slow-news January than covering a political horse race?

The Iowa caucuses are overhyped and overrated in terms of determining America's choice for next leader of the free world, the attention they get saying more about the state of a beleaguered media than the Hawkeye State. What's an easier way to fill space and time in otherwise slow-news January than covering a political horse race?


It was a photo finish between Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum Tuesday, with just eight votes separating the two in the closest Iowa contest ever. Ron Paul grabbed the third spot, followed distantly by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former ambassador and governor of Utah Jon Huntsman.


The biggest bump belonged to Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and darling of evangelical voters who almost alone in this field had never enjoyed frontrunner-of-the-week status in the craziest campaign in memory. His near upset here obviously buys him time in this race, though it's difficult to know how his appeal to social conservatives in Iowa on issues such as abortion and gay marriage will translate to the rest of the nation. From this vantage, absent foreign attack - God forbid - jobs and the economy are the issues in this campaign. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 with basically the same message, and televangelist Pat Robertson gained traction there in 1988 with roughly the same share of votes - 25 percent - that Santorum received Tuesday. Ultimately both sank following Iowa. Santorum has no money and no organization to speak of, though with this showing that could change in a hurry.


As for Tuesday's winner, Romney, this was a predictable outcome, as he's been polling at about this 25 percent level all along. It's clear that significant parts of the Republican base are not all that excited about the former governor of Massachusetts, though enough to matter are taking the pragmatic route, viewing him as the best bet to beat Barack Obama in November.


Beyond that, Ron Paul was a relatively close third, with just above 21 percent support. He is more libertarian than Republican, with his views on race/civil rights and foreign policy setting off alarm bells in parts of the Republican establishment.


Of course, Iowa does have some value in winnowing the field. Bachmann has already announced that she is pulling out, and Perry will return to Texas to think things over, though he is reportedly being urged by advisers to stick it out through the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. That's probably good advice, as it's still very early, though Perry's public performances to date have done him no favors.


Again, it may be unwise to put too much faith in the results out of Iowa, which is a very different animal. Its caucus format tends to attract only the most committed voters. It's small - 122,255 Republicans turned out Tuesday, slightly more than the population of Peoria (and about half the participation in the 2008 Democratic caucus featuring Obama and Hillary Clinton) - and demographically it doesn't look very much like America. John McCain - who endorsed Romney on Wednesday - finished fourth there in 2008 before ultimately winning his party's nomination for the White House.


New Hampshire's primary, five days away, carries some of the same baggage as Iowa - small, unrepresentative - but in a couple of months Americans should have a pretty good read on where this is going.


In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch Gingrich with gloves off, going in particular after Romney, whom he labeled a "liar" this week. Expect things to get ugly, while Obama coasts, for now.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.