Charles Dharapak/AP
A technician irons the American flag as he prepares the stage for the caucus night rally for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday.

Iowa caucus results: For Romney, what constitutes a win?

Aides say Mitt Romney, after running a streamlined Iowa caucus campaign, does not have to 'win this thing' outright to score a victory. But if he's not in first, it matters who finishes ahead of him.

There has been much ado about Mitt Romney’s assertion that he would “win this thing” – presumably, the Iowa caucuses, which convene Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. central time.

Team Romney has worked hard for months to keep expectations low and not overpromise, after spending $10 million here four years ago and losing to the late-surging Mike Huckabee. So his caucus-eve burst of exuberance Monday raised eyebrows. First thing Tuesday, Mr. Romney walked it all back on MSNBC, where he predicted he’d be among the “top group” – first, second, or third, he said.

But forget about coming in third. That would be embarrassing, unless the top three are all bunched in a near-tie. After all, he came in first in the Des Moines Register poll last Saturday, albeit with just 24 percent and with Ron Paul close behind. Second is tolerable, but he would have to be reasonably close to the top finisher. It would also matter who’s ahead of him.

“If he came in second to Paul, I don’t think people would worry much,” says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “If he’s second to [Rick] Santorum, that solidifies him as the un-Romney.”

Congressman Paul, the libertarian from Texas, has a devoted following, but relatively limited room for growth, given his isolationist foreign policy and other views that defy Republican orthodoxy. If former Senator Santorum comes in first, that gives him bragging rights – and higher speaking fees when the campaign ends – but his small organization and limited war chest would make it extremely difficult to compete effectively in subsequent states, especially large ones like Florida.

In a way, a Santorum victory would be a win for Iowa: It would reassert the notion that the candidate who spends the most time here and shakes every hand is rewarded at the caucuses. But it would also reinforce Iowa’s image as a contest to win the hearts and minds of social conservatives, not to secure the status of a potential nominee or president.

Every four years, Iowa’s political powers-that-be worry that their state will fade in relevance as the first presidential nominating contest. The only way that could happen this time is if former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is skipping Iowa, goes on to win the nomination. As things look now, with Romney well ahead in polls of New Hampshire, that’s a long shot.

So in a way, Iowa has already proved its mettle as a key early test for candidates. And the idea that Romney could come in and potentially win Iowa without much effort here isn’t really accurate. In fact, he worked Iowa very hard four years ago, kept his organization alive, and then came in at the end with a burst of activity.

Iowa could end up helping to prove that, for Republicans at least, it often takes at least two attempts at the nomination to win it.

At Romney’s last event of the day Monday, a rally at a promotional products company near Des Moines, top members of his team were excited and cautious at the same time.

“We’ve won already,” says senior Romney adviser Ron Kaufman, in a Monitor interview. “He’s beating expectations.”

Mr. Kaufman elaborates: “We don’t have to win Iowa. We just have to do well, top three.”

David Kochel, Romney’s chief consultant in Iowa, echoes Kaufman.

“We’d like to win Iowa, but we don’t have to,” Mr. Kochel says.

Last time, Kochel says, the campaign had 52 employees in Iowa and spent $10 million. Romney himself spent 50 to 60 days here. This time, Romney has made eight or nine visits and has only five staff here. The campaign had spent less than $200,000 before going up with ads.

“We have a lot of friends and volunteers left over from last time,” says Mr. Kochel, “We’re relying on them more than staff and ads.”

Kochel says that Romney, by marshaling resources and being more streamlined in Iowa, is now better positioned to go the distance with a national campaign.

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