Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
MANCHESTER, N.H. — A squeaker of an Iowa victory behind him, Mitt Romney jumped into the New Hampshire primary, declaring that his staying power sets him apart from caucus runners-up Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and the rest of the GOP presidential field. Michele Bachmann underscored his point by quitting the race, while Rick Perry promised to soldier on to South Carolina.
The withdrawal of Bachmann, who called herself the true conservative of the bunch, left her supporters up for grabs as the pace of the campaign quickens, and that could help Santorum. His appeal to Christian conservatives in recent weeks lifted him from the dregs of the opinion polls to become Romney's top challenger and the conservative of the moment.
"Game on," Santorum declared. But paltry funding and a lean campaign organization will make it tougher for the former Pennsylvania senator to strengthen his momentum.
As a former Massachusetts governor, New Hampshire is Romney's political backyard and he's heavily favored in its Jan. 10 primary. The contests in South Carolina and Florida that pack the final weeks of the month are more promising for the candidates such as Santorum vying for the most conservative voters.
Romney was named Iowa's winner in the wee hours Wednesday — besting Santorum by just eight votes — bringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.
Despite Romney's wealthier, well-oiled campaign, he and Santorum each collected about a fourth of the vote. The Iowa GOP said Romney got 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, who racked up support while touring Iowa's rural areas in his pickup truck.
Fourth-place finisher Newt Gingrich said the results show "3 out of 4 Republicans repudiated Mitt Romney. How can you take seriously somebody after that kind of campaign?"
Romney shrugged off the prospect of sharper criticism from his GOP rivals and Obama's re-election team now that he's narrowly affirmed his front-runner status. "I've got a big target on me now," he said Wednesday, adding that it doesn't faze him.
Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008 despite a costly effort, campaigned across the state in the closing days of the race, running as a conservative businessman with the skills to fix the economy.
Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann argued persistently that Romney wasn't nearly conservative enough on the economy and social issues such as abortion and health care and had vied for months to emerge as the alternative.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who finished a distant sixth, announced in Iowa that "I have decided to stand aside."
Bachmann, who was born in Iowa, had won the state's GOP straw poll last summer before plummeting in the polls. Her loss there was devastating. Bachmann said she had run to counter what she called Obama's "socialist policies" and would continue her fight to overturn his health care plan.
Perry, the governor of Texas, told supporters after his fifth-place finish that he was reconsidering his campaign. But Wednesday he announced via Twitter that he was still in the running: "And the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State. ... Here we come South Carolina!!!"
Meanwhile, Romney added to his already formidable national network Wednesday with the endorsement of Sen. John McCain in Manchester. McCain twice won the New Hampshire primary — including a defeat of Romney there in 2008 — and was the GOP's most recent presidential nominee.
In a sign of the acrimony ahead, Santorum said McCain's nod was to be expected and took a jab: "John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Mitt's view of the world."
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