Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
DES MOINES, Iowa — A squeaker of an Iowa victory in hand, Mitt Romney headed into the New Hampshire primary insisting that staying power sets him apart from runners-up Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and the rest of the GOP presidential field. Two rivals already looked shaky — last-place finisher Michele Bachmann canceled a campaign trip Wednesday and Rick Perry was heading home to Texas to think things over.
Romney shrugged off the promise of sharper criticism from his GOP rivals and President Barack Obama's re-election team now that he's narrowly carried the first contest of the nomination.
"I've got a big target on me now," Romney said Wednesday, adding that doesn't faze him. "I've got broad shoulders. I'm willing to handle it."
The former Massachusetts governor was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses in the wee hours Wednesday by just eight votes, bringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a candidate to challenge Obama in the fall.
The Iowa GOP said Romney got 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win after months languishing in the depths of opinion polls.
"Game on," declared Santorum, jaw set, after easily outdistancing several other contenders to emerge as Romney's top challenger.
Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who came in a distant sixth despite trying to capitalize on her tea party appeal, canceled a campaign trip to South Carolina, where she had hoped to court Christian conservatives Wednesday. Instead, she planned a news conference later Wednesday morning, campaign manager Keith Nahigan told The Associated Press.
Nahigan would not say whether Bachmann intends to drop out. Low on money, her campaign appeared in disarray. But Bachmann told her supporters Tuesday night she would carry on.
Perry, the governor of Texas, came in fifth and told supporters he was going home to reassess his candidacy.
Meanwhile, Romney added to his already-formidable national network by announcing the endorsement of Sen. John McCain, who twice won the New Hampshire primary and was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
In a sign of the acrimony ahead, Santorum said McCain's nod 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.
Even before his victory was announced, 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.
On Wednesday, Romney portrayed himself as the best foil to Obama and said he had the national campaign team and ample fundraising needed to endure the march to the GOP convention this summer. "That's something I think other folks in this race are going to find a little more difficult to do," he predicted. Romney did interviews on all three network TV morning shows.
In all, more than 122,000 straw ballots were cast, a record for Iowa Republicans, and the outcome was a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.
Returns from all 1,774 precincts showed both Romney with 24.55 percent support and Santorum with 24.54 percent. Texas congressman Paul drew 21.5 percent of the votes.
The results are non-binding when it comes to picking delegates to the GOP convention in Tampa. But an Associated Press analysis showed Romney would win 13 delegates and Santorum 12, if there were no changes in their support as the campaign wears on.
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