Don’t be fooled by the swagger in Mitt Romney’s walk at the conclusion of Iowa’s caucuses to choose a Republican presidential nominee.

His eight-vote victory over Rick Santorum may have winnowed the field, but it hardly clears up who will be the eventual nominee to face President Obama. In fact, the outcome may be murkier.

Three-quarters of caucus participants Tuesday night chose someone other than Romney, and his 24 percent tally was almost identical to what he received four years ago, when he finished second to caucus winner Mike Huckabee.

Romney is very unlikely to mirror Huckabee and lose the next scheduled contest, Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Recent polling shows Romney has a big lead in the Granite State, which sits next door to Massachusetts, where he was the governor.

But Santorum’s unexpected surge in Iowa should help him cut Romney’s advantage in New Hampshire, even if he doesn’t win there. And he will be helped by the third- and fourth-place Iowa finishers, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, respectively, who will also be campaigning hard.

If Romney wins New Hampshire, but by a significantly smaller margin than anticipated, the South Carolina primary on Jan. 28 could pose significant danger for him. Social conservatives in the Southern state may match their peers in Iowa in supporting abortion opponent Santorum.

Michele Bachmann’s sixth-place finish in Iowa, where only five months ago she won the GOP straw poll, led her to drop out of the race Wednesday. She joins another former front-runner, Herman Cain. A discouraged Rick Perry, who finished fifth Tuesday night, canceled campaign appearances and headed home to Texas to reassess the situation.

The Iowa caucuses typically force candidates from the field, but rarely decide the eventual party nominees. Largely, the caucuses have become a contrivance that brings unwarranted media attention and huge sums of money into a state whose fairly homogeneous population is hardly a microcosm of the nation’s electorate.

Post-Iowa, the Republican Party is no closer to resolving its internal struggle to define itself. In fact, far-right GOP strategist Richard Viguerie said Romney’s slim victory shows “how narrow and shallow his support is,” which may mean the nomination won’t be settled until the convention in August in Tampa.

Other Republicans believe the party will ultimately unite behind Romney as the best hope to unseat Obama. But for that to happen, the party’s conservative wing will have to bite its tongue and accept a moderate with stances that don’t always conform to its own. Many conservatives say they did that with John McCain as the nominee in 2008. Are they willing to do it again?

Iowa didn’t answer that question. Next up, New Hampshire.

Editorial by the Philadelphia Inquirer distributed by MCT Information Services

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.