Members of the senior class at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, had politely endured last-minute appeals from Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and no fewer than four of the five sons of Mitt Romney when a sudden cheer erupted from the orange bleachers in the gymnasium. Ron Paul had arrived.

The event, on the bright, brisk morning of the Iowa caucuses, featured precisely the sort of absurdities that prompt quadrennial skepticism about the election process. It also illustrated the value of the forced march that is the American presidential campaign.

Arguing for absurdity were the dozens of news cameras on hand in the event any of the candidates said something slightly different from what they had said earlier, or later, in the day (or the month, or the year, or the … ). Then there were the recitations of national problems, and answers to those problems, from candidates who required no more than a few pat phrases and precious seconds to elaborate. (“Abolish the tax code.” “Take your country back.” “Believe in our founding principles.”) Finally there was the sneaking suspicion that few if any of the young adults in the audience, newly empowered to cast a first vote, could say what the heck the Federal Reserve actually does.

Yet the heartfelt cheer for Paul was also instructive. On the last day of the demolition derby of the Iowa campaign, Paul, the Texas representative who is the antithesis of a photogenic, poll-driven creation of mass media, was still able to stand on the bedrock of his convictions. We do not share many of Paul’s views, some of which are repellent. But his success in the, yes, unrepresentative state of Iowa, was based on his articulation of ideas and his ability to organize his followers in support of them.

The much-maligned Iowa phase of the campaign has been extraordinarily useful at clarifying the ideas, weaknesses and strengths of the Republican field. The process is admittedly inefficient (there may be valid reasons for a future president to visit all 99 of Iowa’s counties, but we can’t think of any), frequently misleading (quick: who won the Ames straw poll?) and occasionally silly (check the transcripts of any of the 11 debates since September). It also works.

Herman Cain could not stand the scrutiny of his peers, the press or the public. His dubious contribution to the policy debate, the 9-9-9 flat tax, hasn’t been heard from since he suspended his campaign. Bachmann’s support similarly cratered as her loose relationship to facts and poor management were exposed in the grueling series of debates and the marathon that preceded tonight’s caucuses. Rick Perry might prevail in a campaign dominated by 30-second television ads. But the Texas governor faltered badly in the contest of ideas, intellects and personalities waged on the debating stage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s rise, fueled by those same debates, was curtailed by his own past, which his rivals would not let him, or voters, forget.

The candidates who emerged from the pack tonight -- Paul; Romney, the former Massachusetts governor; and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator -- earned the political edge bestowed by Iowa Republicans, however short-lived it may be. They represent distinct elements of the Republican coalition, and on Tuesday they outpolled their peers -- the only measure of success our system recognizes.

Iowa is not the end of the process, but it is the end of the beginning. If anyone can overcome Romney’s advantages in money, organization and general preparedness, he still has time to show it. Those who fall short certainly can’t fault Iowa. This year, especially, the state gave everyone a chance to be a contender.

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