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Romney leaves 2 key rivals far behind in Iowa, but he can't claim a big tally
WASHINGTON (AP) ' It didn't take a final tally in the Iowa GOP caucus to conclude that two good things, and one bad thing, happened to Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor was assured late Tuesday of nothing worse than a close second-place finish, with a first spot possible, once all votes are counted.
Romney said from the start that Iowa was a bad political fit for him, and he focused his early campaign efforts on New Hampshire. While he made a big Iowa push at the end, his campaign can argue that he beat expectations.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Iowa was unkind to the two rivals that many GOP strategists saw as having the best backgrounds to sustain a long-term threat to Romney: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
That's the good news for Romney. He now heads to the friendly turf of New Hampshire, which votes next Tuesday, with no opponent who clearly can match his fundraising and organizing prowess.
But even if Romney edges out former Sen. Rick Santorum in the final Iowa count, it's easy to argue his showing was unimpressive. Romney was drawing one-quarter of the vote. That's precisely the lackluster level he has pulled month after month, in poll after poll of Republicans.
It's also the same percentage Romney got when he finished a deeply disappointing second in the 2008 Iowa caucus. Campaign veterans say Romney must find a way to excite more conservatives if he is to beat President Barack Obama in November.
"If Romney was unable to move the needle even an inch from four years ago," despite heavy spending on his behalf, "it is hard to argue he has brought new people in or expanded the base of support," said former Obama campaign and White House aide Jen Psaki.
Some Republican consultants, however, see the glass as half full for Romney.
"Romney is in the driver's seat in New Hampshire," said Terry Nelson, who advised Tim Pawlenty before he left the presidential race. "Iowa produced no serious candidate to derail him."
Nelson said it "will be very hard" for Santorum, who languished at the back of the pack until the final days, to raise the money and build the organization he will need to compete in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and beyond.
Another GOP consultant, Matt Mackowiak, said Santorum and third-place finisher Ron Paul of Paul cannot match Romney's resources. "Romney had a great night," he said.
Democrats were less impressed. Matt Bennett of the group Third Way called it a mixed bag for Romney. Santorum and Paul, he said, are "the two demonstrably least-electable candidates in this field since Donald Trump fired himself."
But Romney's inability to build a big plurality is problem, Bennett said. "Challengers to incumbent presidents cannot get merely polite applause or grudging support from their own base if they hope to win general elections," he said.
Santorum now must show whether he can be the long-sought conservative alternative to Romney. It won't be easy.
Santorum, 53, badly lost his 2006 bid for a third Senate term from Pennsylvania. Despite his impressive closing kick in Iowa, he's largely unknown beyond circles that closely follow politics.
Paul, 76, is seen more as a libertarian crusader than a potential president. He recently said he doesn't envision himself as president.
Democrats were hoping for a slow and difficult start for Romney. They want to see him battered, and bled of money, for as long as possible before the summer nominating conventions.
Iowa's result will leave both parties with plenty of disappointments.
EDITOR'S NOTE ' Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.