Mitt Romney defeated Rick Santorum by only eight votes: 30,015-30,007. Ron Paul was third, but the results did little to clarify GOP race.
DES MOINES - After a blizzard of ads, debates and countless Pizza Ranch stops, Iowa caucusgoers essentially delivered a hung-jury verdict Tuesday: A virtual two-way tie between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and a late-surging Rick Santorum leaves the race almost as muddy as it was before Iowans went to their caucuses.
Early Wednesday, Matt Strawn, chairman of the GOP Party in Iowa, announced that Romney had defeated Santorum by eight votes: 30,015-30,007.
Santorum, in a speech given shortly before midnight, gave "a public thanks to God," and said Iowans had taken the first step to "taking back this country."
Taking the stage just before midnight, Romney first congratulated his rival, saying Santorum's showing was "a great victory" for him. He then launched into Obama's foreign policy, his military preparedness and his handling of the economy. "You've got 25 million people out of work," Romney said. "This is just a tragedy that didn't need to happen." Romney called Obama's term "a failed presidency," and vowed to create jobs in the private sector.
Finishing a strong third was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian who has been a favorite with an Iowa GOP electorate that has shown a strong independent streak in years past.
Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann suffered a stinging rebuke from her native Iowa, where she failed to carry a single county and finished last among the six GOP candidates who campaigned in the state, with just 5 percent of the vote.
Two other former front-runners straggled out of Iowa deeply wounded. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in a distant fourth, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who spent heavily in the contest, placed fifth.
For Bachmann, the fall was steep from the heady days of August, when she appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine and triumphed in the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, forcing former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the race.
On Tuesday night, after calling the rest of the candidates to congratulate them, Bachmann told a sparse crowd of about 80 supporters, "The people of Iowa have spoken."
Much of the conservative Christian vote that Bachmann counted on bolted to Santorum, who mounted a remarkable final push to challenge Romney, who put in a solid but not overwhelming performance in Iowa.
While Paul had the most passionate supporters in the caucuses by far, many analysts give him little chance of winning the GOP nomination to face President Obama in November, and a third-place finish in Iowa seemed unlikely to cement him as a front-runner.
The contest provided its biggest boost to Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who only weeks ago was languishing in the polls and desperate for attention as he took to a pick-up truck to reach all of Iowa's 99 counties.
The caucuses, representing 1,774 neighborhood meetings in precincts across the state, capped a hard-fought campaign that has seen the lead change among five different candidates.
The volatility of that race, with its photo finish, may ultimately dilute the influence of the Iowa caucuses, which have become an iconic political ritual. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the giants of Iowa Republican politics, said that the caucuses would not cull the field "like we normally do."
However, by evening's end, Perry announced that he would first return to Texas to reassess his campaign.
Bachmann supporters maintained it was too early to give up, given a fluid nature of a race that has seen candidates rise and fall.
"It's an opportunity to retool," said Eddie Andrews, a Pentecostal minister who spoke on Bachmann's behalf at an overflowing precinct caucus in Johnston, a Des Moines suburb.
In her speech Bachmann alluded to "maybe even another Michele in the White House" and said, "I believe I am that true conservative who can and who will defeat Barack Obama."
Bachmann has scheduled a tour in South Carolina and New Hampshire, where she plans to take part in two debates this weekend. "We bought tickets to South Carolina," she said at a West Des Moines rally. "I'll be in the debates ... in New Hampshire."
With dwindling funds, staff defections, and little organization outside Iowa, it remained unclear how much farther Bachmann can go. Her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told Fox News the three-term Minnesota congresswoman should drop out and defend her seat in the U.S. House. "I think this is her last day," Rollins said.
Coming out of Iowa, Romney remains the prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire, the next contest in the nomination battle. Suffolk University poll results released Tuesday showed him holding firm with 43 percent support of likely voters there, followed by Paul at 16 percent. Running third in New Hampshire, with 10 percent support, is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican who did not bother to campaign in Iowa. The rest of the field polls in the single digits, with Bachmann and Perry at 2 percent each.
Romney was hoping to build on his momentum of high-level party support. Brian Kennedy, his Iowa chairman, said "voters feel he is the candidate who is best able to beat Barack Obama in the fall elections."
For Romney, this was the second time a decisive victory in Iowa eluded him. He finished second in Iowa's 2008 caucuses, losing to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Many ardent Christian voters in the state are still suspicious of Romney because of his health reforms in Massachusetts -- the basis of "Obamacare" -- and his past support for gay rights.
Social conservatives divided
With five other challengers, social conservatives found themselves split, despite a late push by some evangelical leaders to coalesce around Santorum.
Santorum also appeared to benefit from Gingrich's tailspin. Just since October, Republicans saw the dramatic implosion of front-runner Herman Cain, the rise and fall of Gingrich, and now, apparently peaking at the right time, the ascent of Santorum.
It was clear that a good part of Santorum's gain came at Bachmann's expense. "It's the morals, he's a big family man, a Christian," said Jeanne Jennings, a 79-year-old Johnston widow who switched from Bachmann to Santorum. "Santorum would make a better president, and Michele a vice president."
In her hometown, Bachmann was introduced as a "Waterloo's own" before she gave a brief speech to the Black Hawk County Republican caucus. But it wasn't a homer's welcome.
Even as Bachmann flashed a multiwatt smile, an Iowan behind her was chatting with a neighbor about Bachman's steep slide since the summer. Speaking from a tiny stage in the UNI-Dome, Bachmann made a last ditch pitch for support.
When she was done, she quickly moved away from the stage, ceding the spotlight to Gingrich, who vowed to come after Romney full force, in a battle he said would go on for months.
Santorum said he will go straight to New Hampshire after Iowa's caucuses, which, despite their influence in granting momentum, are not binding and do not award delegates to this year's GOP convention in Tampa.
Republicans who view Romney as a relatively middle-of-the-road "best chance" of beating Obama also are casting a wary eye on Paul, whose exuberant supporters appeared to be everywhere in Iowa -- even at his opponents' rallies. "Ron Paul is not for sale," said Rick Nova, an activist selling buttons at a Des Moines rally.
The danger, some GOP operatives fear, is a possible third-party candidacy that could divide conservatives and re-elect Obama.
Kevin Diaz is a Star Tribune Washington correspondent.