Mitt won, but does he look like a winner?

The Republican caucus in Dawson Image copyright bbc
Image caption A British correspondent's first experience of Democracy, Iowa style, came in tiny Dawson

The Republican candidates are heading to their next testing ground, in New Hampshire, and I won't be far behind them.

But for the moment, I am still mulling over the lessons from my first experience of democracy, Iowa style.

It is easy to over-interpret a contest as open as a caucus.

I first came across the term in Alice in Wonderland and the real thing is almost as bizarre as Lewis Carroll's version.

Last night, I went to a fire station in Dawson, population 155.

In a room next to the garage housing two shiny red trucks and an emergency vehicle, 20 people took part in this experiment in ultra-democracy.

Three of them spoke, briefly and to the point, not even taking up the full two minutes allocated.

Then there was a show of hands. Ron Paul seven, Rick Santorum five, the rest down to one or two.

Among the interesting people I met were two independents who registered as Republicans to cast their votes for Jon Huntsman, to protest against a strain of conservatism they dislike.

Interpretations to avoid

A Santorum supporter thought Mitt Romney would win in the end, and a Ron Paul voter wanted to send a message to Washington that radical change was needed.

At the end of the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland, the dodo declares "all must have prizes".

This too was a messy race, but the two who all but tied for first place don't deserve equal prizes.

There are some interpretations to avoid.

Democracy underscores differences. It is easy to see disagreement as division, debate as discord.

So I don't buy the theory that this result shows three party factions battling it out.

It is neat, of course, to see libertarians, social conservatives and moderates who want to win more than anything else, in conflict.

'Eventual winner?'

The tensions are there but there is a lot more overlap than this suggests. The Republican party is a coalition, but it has not divided into hostile camps.

Before the result, I was close to buying the idea that just about any result was good for Romney.

Politico said that first, second or third place was a big win for him.

It may well be true that Romney will emerge as the eventual winner. This race is clearly part of that process.

It is an impressive feat for him to come top in a state he had all but ignored until the last few weeks. It is, in one sense, obviously good news for Romney.

He is confirmed as the man in front, the man to beat.

But this photo finish does underline that the desire to beat him is very strong. He inspires few in his own party. He is distrusted by many.

Rivals weakened

Conservative Republicans are still looking for a hero. If they were to come together around one anti-Mitt candidate, that person would win hands down.

But no-one has been able to capitalise on initial success in the past, and there is no reason to think Santorum is any different.

Michele Bachmann, after an emotional speech warning America was becoming socialist, has dropped out. Rick Perry is down and reconsidering his position, but apparently not quite out.

Paul bears watching. He won his third place by appealing to independents and younger people with radical ideas that alarm an establishment which regards him as too weird to win.

This is Romney's real failure. There is a hunger on the right for something fresh and different. There's a mood in the country that the system is broken and doesn't work for ordinary people.

There is a yearning for a populist politics that stands up to the powers that be.

Romney is almost an incarnation of the establishment, from his well-manicured rallies to his tightly organised campaign lubricated with plenty of lucre, from his past as a successful businessman to his career as a problem-solving politician.

He is not going to capture the public mood with that record, any more than he has won the heart of his party.