Well, if Sen. John McCain has endorsed Mitt Romney, then it’s got to be all over now.

Depending, I guess, on how you define “all over.” Lyndon Johnson earned the nickname “Landslide Lyndon” by winning a U.S. Senate race in 1948 by 87 votes (taking 202 out of 203 votes found in an “overlooked” ballot box six days after the election, leading observers to conclude he had saved money by not wasting funds on a more impressive outcome).

But Romney’s eight-vote margin in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday (without any chicanery involved) deserves a similar sobriquet.

“Near-miss Mitt” isn’t quite alliterative enough to catch on, but “Windfall Willard” might do.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of the former Massachusetts governor. The RealClear Politics average of December polls matching him with President Barack Obama have them essentially tied (with “generic Republican” up by as much as 4 points). And while the fall campaign is still months away, plenty of folks are saying Romney has the nomination so much in the bag that we ought to just move the convention ahead to Groundhog Day and save all the money the GOP plans to spend on holding primaries and caucuses between now and September.

The closeness of the Iowa vote, however, shows that, as of today, Romney hasn’t won the hearts of many more Republicans than he had persuaded to support him up to this point. In fact, he got fewer votes this time around than he did in 2008 in losing the state to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who now might be leading if he had entered the race this time.

Huckabee, a favorite of social conservatives, has seen that title pass to an unlikely successor, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who came in second in Iowa and now must be anticipating the Southern primaries after New Hampshire, where Romney has almost favorite-son status.

Santorum’s political future was believed to have gone toes-up in 2006, after he lost by 18 points to the son of popular former governor Robert Casey, a Democrat who had been scorned by his party for being pro-life.

Santorum, a Catholic with seven kids whose conservative credentials had been considered relatively spotless, antagonized the right that year by supporting liberal Sen. Arlen Specter, who later turned his coat to run for re-election as a Democrat.

The man Specter defeated in the primary, supply-sider Pat Toomey, won the state’s other seat in the GOP’s 2010 landslide. For many on the right that confirmed Santorum’s endorsement of Specter as an irredeemable “own goal.”

But now, maybe not so much.

This has been a year in which many economic conservatives have regarded as mere distractions other conservatives’ views about Second Amendment rights, abortion, same-sex marriage, Obamacare’s threat to medical care for the elderly and similar issues.

It hasn’t helped that the social-conservative vote has been split primarily among Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Santorum (and even Newt Gingrich). Now, Bachmann has withdrawn, Gingrich’s support is nosediving, and Perry hasn’t caught fire (and was even thought to be withdrawing, although he now says he will hang on at least through South Carolina).

Things could change once the campaign moves south and west, and if Santorum can rally most social conservatives around him, he could offer a substantial challenge to Romney, who has supported gun control, abortion, health care mandates and same-sex marriage (though he says he has “grown” since then).

Neither economic nor social issues, however, may prove decisive, either in the primaries or the general election. It would not be surprising if something happened overseas (or at the hands of foreign agents in the United States) that created a crisis so overwhelming that the determining factor in Americans’ voting became their opinion about which candidate was more capable of defending this nation, either against foreign attack or a serious threat abroad, perhaps to its oil supplies.

Iran in particular remains a wild card.

The oil-supply threat would have been reduced if Obama had acted strongly to increase domestic resources, but his near-freeze on new drilling permits and his foot-dragging on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada (which may cause that nation to sell its precious product elsewhere) have increased the importance of our continuing lack of progress in becoming more self-sufficient.

Yes, recent slackness in demand has made the nation a net energy exporter, but that won’t continue if we hope to restore growth. (And why are we electing new leaders if they can’t do that?)

Recent Democratic retirements in the House and Senate have boosted Republicans’ chances of controlling all of Congress in 2013, but the Oval Office remains a competitive race.

Let’s see who the GOP thinks will compete the best. It may, or may not, be the one now appearing to be the most likely survivor.

 

M.D. Harmon is a retired journalist and free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: [email protected]