Mitt Romney won the first battle in this year’s White House race on Tuesday, taking Iowa by a -razor-thin margin to defeat Christian conservative Rick Santorum by just eight votes.
The former Massachusetts governor won 30,015 votes in Tuesday’s Republican nominating contest over 30,007 for Santorum, Iowa officials announced after the two men slugged it out to a nail-biting photo-finish.
“Congratulations to governor Mitt Romney, winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Congratulations to senator Santorum for a very close second-place finish, an excellent race here,” Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn said.
It marked a remarkable comeback for Santorum in the battle to capture the Republican Party crown and to challenge US President Barack Obama on Nov. 6.
“You have taken the first step in taking back this country,” Santorum, who surged after being given up as politically dead weeks ago, told cheering supporters at what was essentially a victory rally after the Iowa caucus.
The former senator, a devout Catholic who opposes abortion and contraception, and has a hawkish foreign policy, took a shot at what are seen as Romney’s more centrist views, saying “what wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and millionaire venture capitalist, said he and Santorum each had “a great victory” and he congratulated Representative Ron Paul on his third-place finish — then trained his guns on Obama.
“This has been a failed presidency,” Romney said late on Tuesday, in a variation of the stump speech he used in Iowa, calling Obama “in over his head.”
Romney and Santorum ended with 25 percent each, Paul stood at 21 percent and former House speaker Newt Gingrich led the second tier of candidates with about 13 percent of the vote.
“This movement is going to continue and we’re going to keep scoring just as we have tonight,” said Paul, 76, a small-government champion who has stumped heavily in his opposition to foreign aid and military interventions overseas.
Gingrich, whose support in Iowa crumbled under a barrage of attack ads chiefly run by Romney’s allies, served notice he would show no mercy as the battle for the party’s nomination shifts to New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday next week.
After a months-long campaign onslaught — barrages of television attack ads, telephone calls and mailings, candidates blitzing across the state — Iowans headed into hundreds of caucus sites around the mostly rural heartland state.
They gathered on Tuesday in places such as school gymnasiums, libraries and church basements to speak out in front of neighbors on behalf of their chosen candidate and then vote by secret ballot.
The Iowa caucuses came against the backdrop of a sour, job-hungry US economy that weighs heavily on embattled Obama’s bid for a second term, four years after he promised “hope and change” in his historic 2008 victory.
Obama, in a message beamed to Democrats holding their own caucuses across Iowa, pleaded with them to stick with him, saying: “Change is never easy.”
“We’ve been making steady progress as long as we can sustain it and that’s what this is going to be all about,” Obama said.