The Iowa caucus was very good news for Rick Santorum. He effectively tied Mitt Romney for first place, losing to Romney by a margin of only eight votes. Santorum’s finish also greatly exceeded expectations.

Mitt Romney – 24.6%
Rick Santorum – 24.5%
Ron Paul – 21.4%
Newt Gingrich – 13.3%
Rick Perry – 10.3%
Michele Bachmann – 5.0%
Jon Huntsman – 0.6%

99% of precincts reporting

All the polling going into the caucus had Santorum rising but only taking third place. This surprisingly strong showing for Santorum will definitely generate a few days of great free media and likely a flood of donations to his cash strapped campaign.

The other good new last night for Santorum is that Newt Gingrich had nice things to say about Santorum but made it clear he was going to turn his fury on Ron Paul and Mitt Romney like a cornered angry badger.  Gingrich portrayed Romney as a lying, cowardly, dishonorable man, and described Paul, whose loyalists placed him third, as a danger to the Republic who would unleash Iranian terrorists with nuclear bombs on America.  Gingrich could end up doing some of Santorum’s dirt work for him.

Despite Santorum’s exceeding expectations with a virtual tie, Mitt Romney is now in great shape. Romney “won,” and nothing makes you look like a winner to people more than winning. Importantly, going forward Romney’s closest rival in national polling, Newt Gingrich, ended up with a disappointing, distant fourth place finish. A finish that poor for Gingrich should continue to push the trend of Gingrich’s national numbers downward.

While Santorum should get a bump from this performance in Iowa, he simple doesn’t appear to be a serious long term concern for Romney.  Until now, Santorum’s support has only been in the single digits nationally and in New Hampshire.  Santorum’s campaign was able to tie in Iowa partly because of a coalescing of conservative non-Romney voters and partly due to months of retail politicking in rural Iowa, but his campaign lacks the big war chest and national infrastructure for the long haul.

Santorum’s surge came so late there was almost no time for him to be hit with negative ads or increased media scrutiny. Now the same intense spotlight that has melted so many previous GOP favorites of the month will get turned on Santorum. I don’t think the man will hold up well.

Finally only a month ago Gallup found that the Republican base considered Rick Santorum the least acceptable of all possible GOP candidates. A month ago, he was less acceptable to the base than Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. That perception will be hard to turn around, especially with the Romney campaign and secretive Super PACs allied to Romney greatly outspending Santorum.

It may have been a surprisingly good night for the Santorum campaign, but it was a great night for Romney. This Iowa finish could easily put Romney on a glide path to the eventual nomination.