Eight Votes

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Eight votes. That’s the big story coming out of Iowa from last night’s caucuses.

That former Senator Rick Santorum emerged from single digits in the polls to virtually tie former Governor Mitt Romney was an amazing feat. And for some of that emergence, Santorum has Romney himself to thank.

Well, maybe not Romney himself. But Romney’s associated super PAC called Restore our Future PAC, which spent $2.8 million on advertising largely to savage former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As Romney’s big money friends drove conservative voters away from Gingrich and as Santorum delivered a pro-manufacturing message that differentiated him from the field, those conservatives flocked to the former Pennsylvania Senator.

Relegated to fourth place, Gingrich was left to pout and declare war on Romney as the results came in, promising a barrage in the debate this Saturday against the “moderate Massachusetts” politician as Gingrich called him.

And Romney should worry, but not just about the debate. What will happen from here are three developments, all supposedly out of range of the campaigns’ control, that will do much to shape the nomination fight. With no limits on contributions or spending, the super PACs will take an outsized role in the short weeks ahead to critical votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

First, Romney’s super PAC will turn its sights to Santorum, hoping to do to him what they did to Gingrich. Santorum is largely undefined in voters’ minds, so look for these attacks to be swift, nasty, and damaging.

Second, Gingrich’s super PAC will unload on Romney in kind. NBC’s Mike Isikoff reported in a little noticed story last night that they have been in talks billionaire casino owner—and longtime Gingrich supporter—Shel Adelson. With his millions at the ready, Romney will face a wall of advertising and innuendo, particularly in South Carolina, and perhaps with content that matches the lies spread about John McCain by Bush-connected operatives in 2000. But this time, it’ll be high-octane, public, nasty, and widespread. No time for whispers.

Third, and this is the wildcard: Governor Rick Perry has a stable of big money backers who are now sidelined. No one cares about his so-called votes in the next three states. They want his rolodex. The biggest gets will be those who have funded his Super PAC, Make us Great Again. If these donors add their money to Romney’s or Gingrich’s, look out. If they form another or shift their allegiance to Santorum, and help him by running positive spots for the underfunded insurgent, he could, possibly, withstand the attacks from Romney.

Next up will certainly be the debates. But what’s coming over the horizon is big money attack ads. At the end of the day we don’t know which candidate will win and which ones will lose. But we already can accurately predict the losers: voters and any semblance of control they have over this nominating process.