Mitt Romney’s critics are pointing out right now that the candidate who claims to be the frontrunner and the most electable is still unable to get more than a quarter of Iowa Republicans to back him. They’re right about the fact that social conservatives and Tea Partiers simply can’t abide him, but in a six-way race, the idea that a top three finish (right now, he’s in a virtual tie with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul) is some kind of defeat is a misreading of his situation.
The greatest danger to Romney’s hopes of winning the nomination was for one of his conservative rivals to break out from the pack. So long as the various not-Romneys are fighting each other, the actual Romney wins. So no matter who comes out ahead in this three-way tangle, the fact that there is no single rival for him in the top tier constitutes a strategic victory for him. Even so, his own inability to do better than the same 20-25 percent he’s had all along doesn’t make him look good. That’s why a first place finish would be sweet for him no matter how narrow the margin of victory. And a third-place finish will feel like a defeat.