DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney won Iowa's presidential caucus vote Tuesday by just eight votes, barely holding off a challenge that came late in the race from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
"This is a campaign night where America wins," Romney said before the results were final.
Romney addressed supporters gathered at a historic hotel in downtown Des Moines shortly before midnight and congratulated Santorum on a "great victory for him and for his effort in Iowa. We also feel it's been a great victory for us here."
Santorum and Romney traded the lead throughout the evening in the presidential preference poll taken at GOP caucuses statewide. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was a close third.
Romney headed to New Hampshire Wednesday, where he has held a sizable lead going into the Jan. 10 primary. He is expected to be endorsed today by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who beat Romney in the race for the 2008 GOP nomination.
His campaign announced he also has stops planned in South Carolina later this week and is starting to air commercials in Florida, the next states up after New Hampshire.
The race in Iowa has long been unsettled, with the lead shifting repeatedly. Both Santorum and Paul only recently surfaced as serious contenders and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth, had been a front-runner until about a week ago.
Many voters appear to have been searching for an alternative to Romney, who was seen as the presumptive front-runner going into the 2012 race.
Romney's campaign had tried to temper expectations for Iowa after his 2008 loss there to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee was supported by many of the same evangelical Christian voters who backed Santorum on Tuesday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Romney's near-tie was still a "big victory."
Chaffetz, who traveled with Romney in his final campaign swing through Iowa, said the candidate was "all smiles upstairs. The game plan was to just finish in the top three."
He said Romney spent less than $2 million compared to more than $10 million in 2008, campaigning just 18 days in the state compared to more than 100 days four years ago.
Investing more resources in Iowa, the congressman said, wouldn’t have made a difference.
"He played it perfectly. I don't think they would have changed anything," Chaffetz said. "They did it just the way they wanted to do it."
Still, the one-time campaign manager acknowledged, "You always want to win. You want to win by as much as you can." Chaffetz ran the first gubernatorial campaign of the other presidential candidate in the race with Utah ties, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Huntsman skipped Iowa's caucuses, focusing his campaign resources on the next election in the 2012 presidential primary race, New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.
Romney sounded confident at an early morning rally in downtown Des Moines, his only public appearance Tuesday, but stopped short there of predicting a victory in Iowa.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who attended the rally, told the Deseret News then that a top-three finish in Iowa would be a strong enough showing for Romney.
"Yes," the nationally known pollster said. "Because he's going to win big in New Hampshire."
Top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters after the rally, "No matter where he finishes tonight, I think he's going to come out of here with a big surge of energy. And I think people see in him a winning candidate."
Fehrnstrom said the nominee who'll face Democratic President Barack Obama in November would not be determined by the results of a single contest.
"We're thrilled to be in the hunt here in Iowa. We did not expect it when we started this campaign," he said, adding the campaign does not expect to win every state going forward — but will win the nomination.
Even as late as Tuesday night, a number of the participants in a downtown Des Moines GOP caucus walked in still uncertain whose name they'd write on their paper ballots.
"My slip is still blank," Eileen Gloor, a registered nurse, said shortly before the early evening meeting in a small room in the city's convention center.
Gloor said because Iowans take their responsibility as the first state to have a say in the nation's presidential primaries seriously, they often take their time choosing a candidate.
"I think we want to be able to reflect all of the different opinions and voices that have been brought to us," Gloor said. "We appreciate the fact that the candidates, or most of them, have been coming to Iowa and willing to talk to us and to meet the average person."
Several others at the caucus said they were likely to vote for Romney, but only because they believed he had the best chance of beating Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
"I think he has a better shot," Lisa Butler said. "Not necessarily a better record."
After representatives of the candidates spoke to the caucus, participants turned in their ballots. Paul won the downtown caucus, which includes what caucus workers described as a number of converts to the GOP.
Iowa allows voters to register as Republicans as late as the start of the caucus. One caucus worker joked that he hoped the party's new recruits would still be Republicans in a few days.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, a GOP activist, said if caucus voters want to influence the selection of delegates to the party's national convention in August, they have to stay involved.
That's because those delegates aren't picked until the state party's convention in mid-June. "A lot of people don't understand how the process works and they think it's over after the first vote," Hagle said.
In reality, by the time Iowa Republicans choose their delegates, one candidate has already secured the nomination. "By the time June rolls around," Hagle said, "it's usually a done deal."
He said the Iowa caucuses are really a test of a candidate's abilities to handle a national campaign.
"If you can't put together a successful organization in Iowa, how are you going to do it nationally," Hagle said.
Still, he acknowledged, some candidates like McCain in 2008 do skip Iowa and still become the party's nominee. Huntsman is hoping he can replicate McCain's success by focusing on New Hampshire.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said voters there are pay close attention to Iowa's caucus.
"You're talking about a quarter million people going to vote in New Hampshire," he said. "This is when the masses of voters cue in and say, 'It's our turn.' That's where Iowa comes in."
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