When is a ‘win’ not a win?

Let’s go through the possibilities for Mitt Romney after Iowa and what could have been.

1. Romney wins, Paul is second and Santorum is five to 10 points back. Romney rejoices.

2. Paul wins, Romney is a close second, the rest of the field bunches further back. Romney rejoices.

3 Everybody but Bachmann is in the mid-teens; Romney is in the upper tier but doesn’t win. Inconclusive. Romney rejoices.

4. The ultimate win for Romney — he scores with over 30 percent of the vote and leaves the others way back in the pack. Game over. Romney really rejoices.

How strange that the Iowa “win” for Romney does not result in exultation. The above scenarios would clearly have been better for Romney.

The problem now is that this race goes on and Santorum has the “juice” for the coming primaries and caucuses. Newt is furious and will relish in attacking Romney in this weekend’s debates and beyond; that helps Santorum. Paul supporters won’t abide Romney and will hang in for the upcoming primaries and caucuses. Romney has to bring Santorum down, fairly quickly, and Santorum will be able to compete financially as his money pours in during the coming days. He will fight back.

New Hampshire: Romney has nowhere to go but down; Santorum has nowhere to go but up. This is not about “winning”; it is about expectations. Romney is caught between a rock and a hard place.

South Carolina and Florida are not exactly hospitable territory for Romney.

What does Michele Bachmann do? Who cares? She is irrelevant. What does Rick Perry do? He has money, Iowa was a disappointment, but he might think twice before getting out. Remember poor Tim Pawlenty!

Could the establishment Republicans hold their noses and go with Romney? Sure. John McCain is slated to endorse him in New Hampshire today. Is the “electability” argument working for Romney? For the moment, yes, but more and more people wonder whether Romney is all that electable. Fundamentally, they don’t trust him, don’t believe he has convictions and just can’t pull that lever for him.

So might this campaign go on for the long haul? You bet. Once we get through January, February is a long month to Super Tuesday in March. A lot of debates, a lot of fundraising, a lot of conservatives who want to coalesce behind a different candidate than Mitt Romney.

So, yes, Romney won Iowa by eight votes but, really, Santorum won Iowa. Fasten your seat belts.