Romney edges Santorum by eight votes in Iowa; Paul in third

Republican Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum by eight votes in the Iowa caucuses, with Ron Paul in third place, Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn said on early Wednesday.

"Congratulations to Mitt Romney, winner of the Iowa caucuses," Strawn said. He said Romney said had 30,015 votes to Santorum's 30,007.

The surprising outcome sends three very different Republicans to the next contest in New Hampshire. Though the GOP field will be somewhat smaller, all the time and money spent in Iowa may have done little more than winnow the field. Only Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he was considering whether to stay in the race; Rep. Michele Bachmann, who finished sixth, said she still was the candidate to beat President Obama.

With Romney, Santorum and Paul separated by few votes, Iowa produced the closest race since the caucuses emerged on the national scene in 1976.

The unexpected result will allow Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, to stay in the race past Iowa, something not at all certain until this week. It caps a remarkable comeback for a politician whose career seemed over when he was emphatically ousted from his Senate seat by Pennsylvania voters in 2006 and whose presidential quest was laughed at through most of the past year. But Santorum persevered through such slights as being pushed into the wings and out of camera view in many of the televised debates.

For Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, the outcome confirms that Iowa is a state that finds it hard to warm up to a front-runner who always seemed beatable but somehow kept surviving. While denied the clear-cut victory he sought in Iowa, the caucus result comes only a week before the primary in New Hampshire, long considered a firewall for the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He was the main target at most of what seemed like weekly debates but never was scarred by rivals who kept pulling their punches.

In his second try for the GOP nomination, Romney was more polished than his faltering run in 2008. Just as in 2008, he still found it difficult to stir passions among Republicans thirsting for partisan blood. But unlike 2008, he found his pitch that he was the most electable Republican appealing to party members who see ousting President Obama as their prime imperative. It became Romney's strongest card and he played it often, promising not to attack fellow Republicans and to keep his sites set on Obama.

That pledge did not keep a Super Pac affiliated with him from spending significant money on ads that all-but-destroyed a surge in support for former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But Iowa always was an unlikely place for a Romney victory. He had little apparent appeal to the Christian evangelical bloc of voters who had proven so pivotal in past caucuses. And he made less of an effort in the state than most of his rivals. While Santorum was spending 106 days in the state and Rep. Michele Bachmann was there 78 days to campaign, Romney spent only 20 days.

And while Santorum bedeviled him from the right, Romney had to contend with the quirky stands and passionate followers of a candidate who seemed impervious to criticism. Iowa gave Paul, the congressman from Texas, perhaps his best chance at gaining the victory he has long sought in multiple tries for higher office. Attracted by his unconventional stands and promises to slash spending, dismantle alliances and make radical changes in monetary policy, Paul's backers are dedicated and loyal - exactly what a candidate needs in a caucus state. That loyalty was there four years ago, but the numbers swelled after a few years of government TARP funds, corporate bail-outs and stimulus spending.

But Paul has had few victories to savor after years of being cast as the lonely crusader for his policies and a congressional career more notable for its passion than its legislative record of bills passed.

At 76 the oldest Republican candidate, Paul is making his third try for the presidency. He ran in 1988 as a Libertarian after leaving the House to run as a Republican for the Senate from Texas. Then, during another stint in the House, he ran for president as a Republican in 2008. He finished fifth in that year's caucuses.

In this year's campaign, he was almost always the odd man out in the debates, railing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lamenting U.S. membership in NATO, condemning the Patriot Act and calling for the United States to pull back from the rest of the world's problems. In his final pitch to voters in Iowa he spoke of impending disaster if Washington does not heed his warnings about the consequences of federal debt and deficit.

While Romney and Paul were almost always seen prominently in debates and news coverage, Santorum was nowhere to be found. If ever a candidate flew under the media radar it was the 53-year-old conservative lawyer from Penn Hills. Almost every one of his rivals for the nomination had his or her moment in the debate spotlight. But not Santorum. He had his moments one-on-one with voters. With stops in all 99 counties, he made more visits to Iowa - 32 - than any other candidate. And his 106 days in the state was more than twice that of any of his rivals. Famed for his often-windy answers to simple questions, he boasted that Monday's town hall meeting was the 377th in the state.

He used that time to woo the Christian and evangelical "value voters" famed in Iowa for their clout in 2008 when they gave Mike Huckabee a win in the caucuses and in 1988 when they elevated Pat Robertson to a strong second place showing.

Before this year, the closest races were George H.W. Bush's 1.9 percent margin over Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bob Dole's 3 point win over Patrick Buchanan in 1996. It appears that the winner in 2012 also will set an Iowa record for the lowest percent of the vote, breaking Dole's 26.3 percent that year.

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