Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Iowa GOP caucus early Wednesday morning by just eight votes after an intense three-way battle throughout Tuesday evening that underscored the depth of opposition to him within the Republican Party.
The race had shaped up as a two-way dead heat between Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn announcing Romney’s victory shortly after 2:30 EST. The final vote total for Romney was 30,015 to Santorum’s 30,007.
The decision Tuesday night by Iowa Republican caucus-goers followed 354 days of campaigning and an estimated 900 events, according to Iowa officials. Candidates spent the final days of campaigning before the first-in-the-nation vote in one last-gasp scramble, traveling from town to city.
The vote was so close that Romney could not effectively claim a decisive victory, especially as Santorum’s dramatic effort suggested the depth of the “anyone-but-Romney” movement within in the GOP. Santorum wasn’t even considered a viable candidate 10 days ago.
The result seemed to signal the end of Rick Perry’s campaign. In a rambling speech to supporters, Perry, who finished fifth with 10 percent of the vote, said he was returning to Texas to “decide the best path forward.” Earlier he had insisted he was flying to South Carolina.
The contest, the narrowest Republican state battle in history, early on seemed to be a three-man race with Texas Rep. Ron Paul leading at the start. But his vote fell away and he ended nearly 4,000 votes back.
The vote was so close that when 88 percent of the precincts had reported, Santorum led by a mere 13 votes. By the time another 4 percent had been counted, Romney was ahead by the same tiny figure. After 99 percent Santorum was back ahead – again by 13 votes, 29,924 to 29,911.
One later figure issued by the state Republican Party had the margin between the two candidates down to a single vote. The result was delayed due to confusion over one precinct in Clinton County in the east of the state.
The winner received less than one in four of the votes counted, the lowest figure for any victor in the state since the caucuses began in 1972. The previous worst was former Sen. Bob Dole’s 26 percent in 1996.
Although Romney remains the favorite for the nomination, the extremely close win did not help him going into next week’s New Hampshire primary. Weekly Standard editor, Bill Kristol told Fox News, “The Romney inevitability story has taken a big hit.
“He can’t get 24, 25 percent of the vote here in Iowa and say I'm the inevitable nominee,” Kristol added.
Early in the evening, the caucuses seemed to be heading for a virtual three-way tie between candidates representing the three strands of the Republican Party – social conservative Santorum, moderate Romney, and libertarian Paul.
Romney did well in the main population centers of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport, while Santorum easily won the rural areas and Paul scored in college towns.
Now all eyes move to next week’s New Hampshire primary where Romney is the prohibitive favorite. A CNN flash poll suggested that the Iowa result had made little difference with Romney holding a 47 percent lead followed by Paul with17 percent, and Jon Huntsman with 13 percent – all figures exactly the same as a similar poll in November.
However Santorum doubled his figure to 10 percent in that poll, overtaking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for fifth place.
“We’ll have another fun time a week from now,” Santorum told supporters.
Gingrich, who was badly hurt by a series of attack ads from Romney and Paul, exceeded expectations with 13 percent, followed by Rick Perry with 10 percent, and Michele Bachmann with just 5 percent. Huntsman, who had not campaigned in the state – saying: “Corn is picked in Iowa, presidents are picked in New Hampshire” – received less than 1 percent.
It was a particularly disappointing night for Bachmann who had made a big play of the fact she was born and raised in Iowa and who won the Ames straw poll in August. Pundits suggested she will have to quit the race either before New Hampshire or soon after, although she gave no hint during her speech to supporters suggesting that “another Michele” could be in the White House next January.
But she added, “The people of Iowa have spoken.”
Romney, Santorum, and Paul went toe-to-toe from the first results to be announced in Indianola in the south of the state, which Paul won. He held the lead among early-reporting precincts, then Romney overtook him.
But as votes continued to pour in, Santorum took the lead and Paul’s numbers started to slip. Romney made a comeback and the lead between him and Santorum changed regularly with never more than 150 votes between the two of them.
Speaking to supporters at his headquarters, Paul claimed only he and Romney have the money and organization to win. “I am one of two who can run a national campaign and raise the money,” he said.
“This momentum is going to continue and we are going to keep scoring, just as we have tonight.”
In his speech to supporters, Gingrich praised Santorum and insisted he would continue not to run attack ads but “I will reserve the right to tell the truth.” He called Romney “a Massachusetts moderate who will be pretty good at managing the decay in Washington.”
Gingrich said his fourth place proved he had “survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa caucuses,” referring to the ads from Romney and Paul.
Santorum’s success was hailed as a victory for old-fashioned retail politics. Of all the candidates he has the least money and focused heavily on the state, traveling to all 99 counties.
He only surged into contention after Christmas, leaving no time for his opponents to spend money criticizing him.
Now as the contest moves to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida before the end of the month, rivals are bound to start attacking Santorum, picking into his record. Already Paul has suggested he is not as conservative as he has made himself out to be.
According to polls taken outside caucus halls, Romney and Santorum split the vote among previously registered Republicans with Paul easily winning the Independent vote.
Turnout was disappointingly low with only around 3,000 more voters than in 2008, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won with 40,954 of the 118,321 ballots cast.
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