DES MOINES, Iowa — In the closest Iowa caucus result in history, Iowa Republicans split closely between Mitt Romney and upstart Rick Santorum on Tuesday, launching a contentious battle for the right to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.
After vote totals for two out of more than 1700 precincts were delayed for hours, the Iowa Republican Party chairman reported at 1:35 CST that Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, had edged Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, by 8 votes out of over 60,000 cast for the pair. Each candidate pulled 25 percent of the total vote.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was a close third, with 21 percent.
Trailing in the second tier were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in fourth place, Texas Gov. Rick Perry in fifth and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in sixth.
Perry announced that he'll return to Texas to assess his campaign, likely a step toward dropping out. Bachmann's campaign also appeared on life support.
Iowans rendered their judgment in caucus meetings at churches, schools and firehouses on a cold, clear evening, a quadrennial showcase of democracy that often winnows the field of candidates while sending top finishers off to the rest of the country. Turnout was close to the record 118,000 who showed up in 2008.
Both Romney and Santorum looked ahead with reason for optimism — and challenges to their hopes.
Romney emerged in a strong position thanks in part to the relative weakness of his top rivals going forward.
Paul told supporters Tuesday evening that he's the only other candidate who can wage a national campaign. "We're going to keep scoring," he said. But his isolationist foreign policy makes it very unlikely he could win the nomination. Moreover, Iowans did not rally to either Gingrich or Perry, among the best suited to test Romney coast to coast. Gingrich has fame and unrivaled debate skills; Perry had money.
Yet Romney still faces questions from conservatives — despite four years of work, he could not increase his share of the Iowa vote from 2008. And his barrage of negative ads against Gingrich is drawing rage from Gingrich, who vowed to fight back starting Wednesday.
"On to New Hampshire," Romney told an Iowa rally early Wednesday morning. "We have some work ahead."
Santorum managed to finish strong thanks to a long, face-to-face campaign in Iowa, and he could rally support as the conservative alternative to Romney.
"Thank you, Iowa," Santorum told supporters early Wednesday in Des Moines. "We are off to New Hampshire...because the message I shared with you tonight is not an Iowa message or an Iowa and South Carolina message. It is a message that will resonate across this land. It will resonate, I know, in New Hampshire."
But Santorum lacks money and organization in later voting states. He did not, for example, make the primary ballot in Virginia. And his evangelical base is less influential in other states than in Iowa.
The campaign races next to the East Coast for a rapid-fire series of contests that might be called the Interstate 95 primary, with primary elections in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, in South Carolina on Jan. 21, and in Florida on Jan. 31.
Romney dominates in New Hampshire polls, so much so that anything less than a landslide win by him there could be seen as a setback.
New Hampshire is more liberal than Iowa, much less interested in social issues than the Hawkeye State, and much more challenging to social conservatives. It's also very familiar with Romney, who has a summer home there and governed next door. He leads by a better than 2-to-1 margin over Paul and nearly 3-to-1 over Gingrich.
Gingrich and Paul both will challenge Romney on his home turf. Gingrich arrives in New Hampshire on Wednesday morning and vows to hammer Romney as a closet liberal.
After watching his lead in Iowa be crushed by a torrent of negative ads from Romney and an independent pro-Romney group — as well as other rivals and news media commentators — Gingrich is vowing to hit back hard.
He lashed out at Romney in remarks to supporters Tuesday night, calling Romney a "Massachusetts moderate who will be pretty good at managing the decay" in Washington rather than reverse it.
Santorum also heads to New Hampshire on Wednesday, eager to prove that his late surge into the top tier in Iowa was not an isolated event because of his long campaigning there. He visited all 99 Iowa counties.
He also aims to prove he has broader appeal beyond the Christian conservatives in Iowa who helped propel him toward the top. Mike Huckabee did the same thing after winning Iowa four years ago — but finished a distant third in New Hampshire to moderates John McCain and Romney and never recovered.
"It's a long road," Romney said Tuesday before the caucuses. "I'll have a target painted on me, and so I expect other folks to come after me. ... And, you know, if I can't stand up to that, I shouldn't be the nominee."
South Carolina, though, could become the pivotal battleground, the next place where all the remaining candidates compete.
Deeply conservative, the state is the first test in the Republican South and a strong measure of success with the party base. Since 1980, every winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination.
Bachmann will largely skip New Hampshire — except for nationally televised debates there on Saturday and Sunday — and head to South Carolina for what she hopes will crown one candidate as the conservative alternative to Romney.
However, Romney aides say privately that they want a large field of conservatives dividing up the South Carolina vote and allowing him to win.
And Romney's not conceding the state even this week leading to New Hampshire's vote Tuesday. He dashes to South Carolina late Thursday for a few events before heading back to New Hampshire on Friday.
Romney also announced Tuesday his first TV ad in Florida, a sign that he's looking past immediate contests. Aides have long noted that he is the one candidate who can wage a coast-to-coast campaign with his war chest and deep organization.
Whether all the candidates make it further is an open question, particularly for Bachmann. The woman who won a straw poll of Iowa Republicans in August and briefly held first place in the polls all but collapsed in recent weeks.
She announced that she'd forge ahead, calling Iowa "the very first chapter" and scheduling campaign events in South Carolina on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. She also looked to the two nationally televised debates in New Hampshire as a last, free chance to turn things around.
Still, she faced pressure to drop out even before Tuesday's caucuses.
"I don't think it is her time this go-around," Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, said on Fox News hours before Republicans went to the caucuses. "Unless she, too, wants to spend her own money or borrowing money and perhaps go into debt ... perhaps she is one, too, who would start saying, 'Supporters of mine, why don't we coalesce around one of the other candidates?'"
(William Douglas and David Lightman of the Washington Bureau and Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed from Iowa.)
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