Compilation of analysis and reaction to the photo finish in the Iowa caucuses

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Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were separated by just a roomful of votes, the closest finish in Iowa caucus history.

Takeaways:

“Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are going to help Santorum … Perry, in a gracious and politically wise speech, told his supporters he is planning to ‘reassess’ whether he has a path forward. Few people usually make that statement and then decide to continue. That opens up a nice swath of prospective backers for Santorum in South Carolina, the state where Romney needs a divided conservative field in order to have a strong shot. At the same time, Gingrich made clear he is planning on staying in the race despite a disappointing fourth-place finish. He praised Santorum for his “positive” campaign in his own election night speech – and lambasted Romney once again for the millions of dollars his backers spent on negative ads trashing the former House Speaker. …

“Chicago is smiling … [T]he race going forward remains confused, and newly joined by an energized Santorum. That can only thrill President Obama’s re-election team, which would love to see a drawn-out primary – and had lost hope it could happen as one challenger after another seemed unable to tackle Romney. The race could still end in a few more weeks, after the Florida primary. But Santorum has lived off the land for months, and it will likely take a lot to get him out of the race. …

“Yes, retail still matters: Despite questions about a New Normal in campaigning – and whether the nationalized state of the race up until December represented a larger change in presidential politicking – it was the shoe-leather candidate who soared to a surprise top finish.

A compilation of analysis and reaction:

Paul Begala: “I would have never guessed Rick Santorum would be so happy about two men being tied up together. The former senator tangled with Romney atop the Iowa caucuses by following the Frank Finkel strategy. Finkel was the only man in George Custer’s C Company to survive the Battle of Little Bighorn. He survived not because he was especially crafty or brave. It was just that his horse couldn’t get him to the battle on time. Following the Finkel strategy, Santorum avoided the media crossfire, arriving at the battle too late to be killed. But fear not, dear reader, there are many battles to come.”

Peter Beinart thinks Romney did well: Republican presidential history is littered with moderate frontrunners who got creamed in Iowa—George H.W. Bush in 1988, John McCain in 2008—and still won the nomination. In 2008, Mitt Romney invested heavily there and lost by 9 points. This year, he kept expectations low and managed a tie for first place with two candidates who almost certainly can’t beat him. That may be boring, but it’s pretty darn good.

Ron Brownstein: “The big story in Iowa appears to be that Romney’s camp is getting the result it wanted despite a merely workmanlike showing for their own candidate. That’s because the Iowa results will elevate Paul and Santorum, who face the greatest hurdles in building a national campaign, while depressing Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry — either of whom might have had more chance to emerge as a threat to Romney if they had received a boost from Iowa.” … “Still, the results leave open the question that has dogged the former Massachusetts governor all year: whether outside of his home terrain in New Hampshire, he can expand his support much beyond 25 to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.”

Alex Castellanos: “I think we’re learning is that that big turnout that Republicans were hoping for, were hoping to send a message to President Obama: ‘Hey, that Republicans are motivated.’ We may not get that tonight. It looks like this is going to be a turnout somewhere on the level of the last election for Republicans. So it’s like going to the movies. Nobody says, hey, I want to go to the movies tonight, but I just don’t know which movie I want to see. That large undecided vote is going to give us, I think, less turnout than the 150,000 people had hoped for.”

Kevin Drum has a theory about Santorum’s strong showing: [H]e surged because there were no debates in the final three weeks before Iowa. Santorum is possibly the whiniest, least appealing debate candidate I’ve ever seen in my life, and I figure he lost a few thousand votes every time he went on the air. So the calendar helped him a lot. Unfortunately, there’s a debate coming up this Saturday, which should be perfectly positioned to allow the voters of New Hampshire to remind themselves that they really don’t want to see this guy on their TV for the next four years. That’s bad luck for Santorum, but them’s the breaks.

Erick Erickson: As you wake up this morning, the tea party has failed because it has surrendered itself into the hands of Romney, Santorum, or Gingrich — all of whom would use government to suit allegedly conservative ends, which is not conservative in and of itself. But by God Mitt Romney may now get the political beating everyone has been expecting him to get. Newt Gingrich has nothing left to lose. He can go Newtlear against the guy he sees as having destroyed him. Newt Gingrich can unleash unmitigated hell against MItt Romney and just like the attacks on Newt were true, they’ll all be true about MItt Romney too.

Howard Fineman: “A wounded Newt Gingrich is more dangerous than a winning Gingrich.”

First Read: “The upcoming New Hampshire contest is going to be FASCINATING, as well as potential trouble for Romney. It’s do-or-die time for Jon Huntsman. Gingrich last night warned that he will make New Hampshire his Alamo… So you could have Huntsman hitting Romney from the middle and Gingrich hitting him from the right. That creates an opportunity for Santorum, who has the potential to stay above that fray and pull off another surprising finish. Second place in New Hampshire is worth something if it’s 25% or more.”

David Frum: Here’s a contest that by all odds Romney should have lost. The question through the past year was: lose to whom? This was a state designed for Rick Perry to take away from Romney–and thereby launch a powerful national conservative challenge. Instead, Perry is heading home to Texas. Gingrich–another, less plausible, alternative–has collapsed into bitterness and sulk. Romney won by a narrow margin because the remaining conservative alternatives looked unconvincing even to Iowa social conservative voters. A Romney-Santorum contest is not much of a contest at all. If that’s not obvious today, it will be obvious a week from today, after New Hampshire reports.

Jim Geraghty: “Santorum can’t replicate his Iowa effort in many other states. A big question about Santorum has been whether he can assemble a campaign infrastructure in all the states to come, but somehow I suspect that the considerable number of anybody-but-Romney Republicans will eagerly step forward and help assemble that infrastructure. If the race comes down to Romney & Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator will have access to funds from the grassroots. Perhaps not enough to go toe-to-toe with Romney, but enough to make it competitive.”

Ezra Klein wonders when Romney will become the center of attention: Romney has arguably been the frontrunner through the entire election. But he’s never gotten the sort of scrutiny a frontrunner tends to attract. … Soon enough, it’s just going to be Romney out there. And he’s going to start getting hammered with questions about why he won’t release his tax returns and where exactly his claim to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain Capital comes from and why, when he was at Bain, he fired this nice-seeming guy being interviewed on the television.

Josh Marshall: Going into tonight the idea was that Romney could come in first, second or maybe even third and still ‘win’. There was a decent logic to that. But as I hear the conventional wisdom taking shape, the result in practice (which could still quite likely be a numerical victory for Romney) seems considerably worse for Romney than one might have expected. It feels like a significant setback. In the big picture, still very hard to see how someone else gets the nomination. But a tie for first, which seemed like it would be still pretty good for Romney, doesn’t look so good in the event.”

Grover Norquist doesn’t sound like he has a whole lot of faith in either Santorum or Romney: The candidate who wins the GOP nomination and then the presidency will be signing bills passed by Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Leadership will flow from the Hill, not the White House. I feel better about that every day.

Nate Silver: “What Mr. Romney did not do, in either a literal or a figurative sense, was wrap up the nomination. A resounding victory in Iowa might have come closer to accomplishing that, but not one with these aesthetics. Here comes the ugly stat sheet: an eight-vote margin of victory, a vote share lower than Mr. Romney attained in 2008, a failure to beat Mr. Santorum among registered Republicans and the lowest-ever winning percentage in the Iowa caucus… There is certainly the chance that he wins the nomination without really capturing Republican voters’ hearts and minds, and that might have an impact on Republican turnout at the margin in November. But few candidates capture the party nomination, or the presidency, without ‘winning ugly’ at some stage.”

Dave Weigel: “Tea Partiers did not demand much economic libertarianism from their GOP. Sixty-four percent of caucus-goers called themselves ‘Tea Party supporters,’ and 30 percent of them backed Rick Santorum — a social conservative who proudly defended his earmarks. Rick Perry, who campaigned desparately on the issues Tea Partiers say they care about — no earmarks! Term limits! Part time Congress! — got 14 percent of this vote. Michele Bachmann got 9 percent of it.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.