Mr. Romney’s showing here was strong enough to leave intact his plan to tough out a long delegate-accumulation campaign if that is what it takes to become the nominee. And Iowa results have a habit of being quickly erased by those in New Hampshire, where polls show Mr. Romney with consistent and substantial leads.
But even a resounding victory there will leave him facing the need to knit together a party searching for an identity in ways not seen since the aftermath of Watergate.
Mr. Romney is seeking to take control of a party still in search of a post-Bush identity and divided into factions. Republicans were energized by the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010. But the movement’s influence on Congressional Republicans — its willingness to press its principles right up to the brink of a government shutdown, make life difficult for its own party’s leaders and take provocative positions on issues like Medicare — have also sparked a countermovement from the left focused on income inequality, and provided Mr. Obama another chance to occupy the center.
The question is whether Mr. Romney can use the next three contests to get over all of that, persuade his party to coalesce behind him, and get on with the business of defeating Mr. Obama. Even some of Mr. Romney’s most enthusiastic backers do not pretend to believe he will necessarily emerge as a transformational figure who will define Republicanism the way Ronald Reagan — and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush — did.
Declaring the Reagan-Bush era over as of 2008, former Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, a Romney booster, said, “We’re moving to something new and I don’t know if Governor Romney, if he’s the nominee, will be that new person or if he’ll be a transitional person.”
But Mr. Talent argued that Mr. Romney was the most capable, electable and acceptable candidate for Republicans at large, and argued the party should focus on getting him into office and then return to the internal deliberations about its direction.
“The whole Tea Party movement has tremendous influence and has a passionate group of activists who don’t like what is going on but beyond that, don’t necessarily agree on what they do want done,” Mr. Talent said. “For others who aren’t sure the direction they want to go in, he’s at least the person to put your trust in as a capable person who can win and who they do trust will address the tremendous problems we’re facing now.”