Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Editor’s Note: Edward Morrissey is a senior editor and correspondent for the conservative commentary website

Story highlights

Ed Morrissey says close finish in Iowa mirrored much of GOP race, with voters ambivalent

He says Iowa winner matters little for nomination since no delegates chosen in caucuses

He says Mitt Romney would've faced trouble if Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich had done better

Morrissey: Rick Santorum and Ron Paul pose less of a challenge for Romney

CNN  — 

After months of prologue, the voters in Iowa have finally spoken in a clear, strong voice, saying … we’re not sure who we like. In a finish that looks a lot like the campaign that preceded it, Mitt Romney found himself in a close battle with two other candidates who recently surged in popularity. In this case, it was a photo finish with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, one that vote counters will probably review repeatedly to ensure the numbers are solid.

Who won? That’s really immaterial, both literally and figuratively. The caucuses Tuesday night didn’t win any candidates a single delegate. Iowa chooses its delegates to Tampa at the state Republican convention later this spring. In 2008, John McCain got all of Iowa’s delegates to the national convention, even though Mike Huckabee won the caucuses.

Edward Morrissey

In this case though, the order of finish matters even less to Romney. An outright win would have gone a long way to sealing the nomination, especially since Romney lost the Iowa caucuses in 2008 despite putting much more effort into winning it than this time around.

Romney deliberately set expectations lower in this cycle and concentrated his efforts in New Hampshire, where he consistently laps the field in polling. Finishing eight votes ahead is a good outcome for Romney – and a relatively inexpensive one, too.

Opinion: Thank you, Iowa

His partners at the top of the chart make it even better for Romney. Had Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry – or both – won or finished strong in Iowa, Romney would have a much tougher task in consolidating support to secure the nomination quickly.

Perry could have presented a formidable opponent in terms of organization and fundraising, while Gingrich would have challenged Romney in debates all through the primaries in much the same way that Hillary Clinton dogged Barack Obama all through the winter and spring of 2008 before finally admitting defeat as summer arrived.

Gingrich, however, finished a distant fourth place despite having led the polling in Iowa a couple of weeks ago. Perry was an even bigger disappointment; he had precinct captains at every meeting stumping for him, and he spent well in excess of $1 million in a final saturation ad campaign. His low finish has prompted the governor to return to Texas to “reassess” his candidacy, which means that he’s almost certain to withdraw.

Paul and Santorum present fewer difficulties for Romney. Santorum could become a rally point for social conservatives, but if Perry and Gingrich remain in the race, that’s less likely. Santorum’s low fundraising numbers hark back to the Huckabee campaign, which won Iowa but lacked the resources to capitalize on the victory.

A significant amount of Paul’s support comes from outside the party, so closed primaries such as South Carolina will produce much less support for Paul – and his presence might make enough Republicans nervous that they will back Romney to end Paul’s momentum.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Morrissey.