The muddled result in the nation's midsection was the Republicans' version of early Groundhog Day - a shadow that guarantees a minimum of six more weeks of heavy campaigning as Santorum now pushes to emerge as the right's anointed alternative to the more moderate Romney.
"The results suggest to me how fractured the Republican caucus-goers in Iowa are," said Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University, marveling at how evenly split the party seems among its socially conservative, libertarian and pro-business wings. "This is likely to be what we see in other states as well." But he argued that the split was probably good for Romney, because he jumped into Iowa at the last minute.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who finished a dismal fifth in the Hawkeye State, scrapped his plan to head straight to South Carolina and said he instead would reassess his campaign at home in Texas. Before the caucuses, however, he suggested how conservative candidates should attack Romney in the South.
"Those folks in South Carolina, I can promise you, they're not going to buy a pig in a poke, so to speak," Perry told a rally yesterday, "and a Massachusetts governor that put individual mandates in place that Obama took as the model to create Obamacare is not going to sell in South Carolina."
Indeed, the unique political topography of 2012 may mean that next week's first primary, in New Hampshire - once a snow-packed political circus that broke the backs of Ed Muskie and Bob Dole but saved the hides of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton - could be almost an afterthought. It appears more likely that several of the top GOP contenders will cede the Granite State to longtime New Englander Romney and instead fight a death match in ultraconservative South Carolina, each seeking to emerge as the Anti-Romney.
Romney - who has struggled to prove his conservative bona fides after supporting abortion, gay rights, anti-global-warming measures and health-care mandates earlier in his career - may find the Palmetto State to be laced with political quicksand. That is the state, after all, that is home to tea-party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted "You lie!" at Obama during a speech - a place where a moderate Republican Rep. Bob Inglis was voted out of office after telling party faithful to "turn off Glenn Beck."
Experts say that the race to pick a challenger to Obama in the fall election will probably pivot in one of two very different directions.
In one scenario, Romney claims momentum from the photo-finish in Iowa and a likely landslide win in New Hampshire to hang on in South Carolina and then win the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, a large and diverse state where Romney's huge financial war chest should help. A Florida win could create an aura of inevitability about Romney going into the Super Tuesday primaries in early March, where his underfunded rivals would be hard-pressed to keep up.
But in the other scenario, the 75 percent or so of the Republican base who've been resistant to Romney so far rally around one alternative - most likely the winner in South Carolina - as the standard-bearer of the far right. Because of a complicated change in GOP nominating rules, there are fewer winner-take-all primaries in 2012 and more races in which delegates are awarded proportionally. That could create a situation in which the Romney and the emergent Anti-Romney grind it out all the way to the August convention in Tampa - very much as Obama and Hillary Clinton did in the Democratic race in 2008.
Not everybody had a good night in Iowa. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann - who rose this summer in a straw poll at the Iowa State Fair - fell to sixth place, which was last among the major candidates who competed there and sparked rumors that she would drop out. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - the front-runner there just one short month ago - collapsed to fourth place amid a barrage of ads from Romney's well-heeled supporters, and he vowed to go negative on Romney, whom he characterized yesterday as a liar.
It all makes Iowa feel like a warmup lap for a just-starting race that will be like a bizarro-world NASCAR - a series of sharp turns to the right.