Axelrod hammered Romney for the fact that he and his affiliated super PAC spent more than $4 million in Iowa before the caucus and still ended up with six votes fewer than he won four years ago.
Romney "entered as a weak front-runner, and he leaves as a weak front-runner," Axelrod told reporters on a conference call. "The question is why. Why are people questioning Gov. Romney?"
Democratic and Obama strategists have for weeks been pushing a narrative of Romney as a flip-flopper without a "core," hurtling to the extreme right in a competitive campaign. Axelrod portrayed Tuesday night's outcome as affirming their belief.
"Had he won a resounding victory… and transcended what he had done before, I think you could have argued persuasively that he was bringing that party together and that he was in a position to close this out," he said. "I don't think that happened last night … it is very possible that this race will go on for a while."
Messina, Obama's campaign manager, set the expectations bar high for Romney staging a "victory" next Tuesday night in New Hampshire.
"He's been leading these polls in New Hampshire by 30 some points. He needs to hold that," Messina said, when asked what benchmark he'd set for Romney. "He's got to win by 30 points or so here to continue this momentum. It's a home game for him."
As to whether Team Obama had any concerns about former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's rise, Axelrod reprised a line he used to ding Newt Gingrich three weeks ago, tacitly implying the answer was "no."
"Now it's Santorum who's climbed up the pole, and as I've said about Gingrich, Americans will judge whether they like the view," he said.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul responding to Axelrod's characterization of the Romney win in Iowa, called it an attempt to distract attention from the president's economic record.
"President Obama's cronies spend more time strategizing about Mitt Romney than they do strategizing how to create jobs for the 25 million people who are out of work," Saul wrote in an email. "For the near 9 percent unemployed - and the millions more who feel the country is on the wrong track - help is finally on the way. The campaign to defeat Barack Obama and get this economy working again has begun."