Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney eked out a minuscule 8-vote victory over Rick Santorum in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, the state party chairman said early Wednesday, ringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.
Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, Matt Strawn said Romney had 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win.
"Game on," declared Santorum, jaw set, after easily outdistancing several other contenders to emerge as Romney's unvarnished conservative rival for the primaries yet ahead.
Romney looked past his GOP rivals and took aim at Obama. "The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I've ever seen in my life," he told supporters in Iowa's capital city.
The narrow margin, out of more than 122,000 straw poll ballots cast, was a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul ran third and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth. Both men vowed to carry the fight to New Hampshire's primary next week and beyond.
Not so Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth and told supporters he would return home to reassess his candidacy.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was a distant sixth, and her campaign appeared in disarray. She told reporters she would carry on - less than an hour after her campaign manager raised doubts in an Associated Press interview about whether she would stay in the race.
Romney is heavily favored in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10. South Carolina on Jan. 21 figures to be a tougher test, the first contest in the South and a state that is part of the Republican political base.
Already, the top two finishers in Iowa were staking out their turf.
Officials said Romney would receive an endorsement in the morning from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who twice won the New Hampshire primary and was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
Santorum said that was to be expected, and jabbed at his rival. "John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Mitt's view of the world," he said.
Returns from 1,772 of 1,774 precincts showed both Santorum and Romney with 24.5 percent and Paul with 21.5. Santorum had 29,944 votes, Romney had 29,926 and Paul 26,163.
Gingrich had 13 percent, followed by Perry at 10 percent and Bachmann with 5 percent.
No matter how close the final results in Iowa, there were no plans for a recount.
Doug Heye, a spokesman for the state party, said the ballots were counted under the supervision of campaign representatives who certified the totals. He said the numbers were double-checked when they were reported to state officials and there was no reason to check them again.
"On to New Hampshire," Gingrich said to the cheers of his supporters, vowing to carry on his campaign no matter the Iowa outcome.
The former speaker led in the pre-caucus polls as recently as a few weeks ago, only to fall under the weight of attack ads run by a super PAC run by allies of Romney.
Paul, too, said he was looking forward to the nation's first primary in a week's time, telling supporters his was one of two campaigns with the resources to do the distance. "There's going to be an election up in New Hampshire, and believe me this momentum is going to continue and this movement is going to continue and we are going to keep scoring," he told supporters.
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