Romney edges Santorum in Iowa caucuses

Posted: January 04, 2012

DES MOINES - Mitt Romney narrowly defeated a surging Rick Santorum by just eight votes in the Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday as voters rendered the first verdict of the 2012 presidential campaign.

It was a chaotic kickoff after a year of campaigning that featured a rotating group of front-runners, and suggested a party deeply divided as it prepares to take on President Obama.

At 2:34 a.m. EST, the Iowa Republican chairman Matt Strawn declared Romney the winner - putting him past Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, by all of eight votes. Romney's final vote count was 30,015 to Santorum's 30,007, Strawn said.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian warhorse, finished third, drawing younger voters and independents, according to polls of voters entering the caucus sites.

With the momentum boost, Santorum now will be able to make the case that he is the truest conservative challenge Romney for the nomination in a party that has moved steadily to the right over the last 30 years and draws much of its energy from the tea-party revolt against government spending.

"Game on," Santorum said to cheering supporters at the Stoney Creek Inn in suburban Johnston, Iowa. "The essential issue in this race is freedom - whether we will be a country that believes government can do for us . . . or whether we believe as our founders that our rights come from God."

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and investment banker, is a favorite of the party establishment and argues he is most electable. Santorum appeals to religious and social conservatives.

Santorum's strong showing was built on a lean budget; Santorum ran few television ads, and moved around the state in an aide's Dodge Ram 4X4 pickup. "I've survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God," he said.

Now the underfunded Santorum faces a challenge to raise money and quickly build a campaign structure able to outlast the Romney machine in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida over the next three weeks - and beyond.

Romney, whose strategists had hoped to take command of the race with a clear-cut victory, congratulated his rivals.

"This is a campaign where America wins," Romney said. "We're all working from passion for America and concern for a president who is a nice guy but is just over his head."

Paul told supporters late Tuesday that "the enthusiasm has been unbelievable.. . . We have had a fantastic showing."

However close the vote, there would be no recount. The caucuses begin the process of selecting GOP convention delegates and results are not binding, so there is no legal requirement for one.

The contenders for the GOP nomination had little time to pause before the next showdown, in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday. Even as they celebrated - or put the best spin on - returns at caucus-night rallies in hotel ballrooms here, most were preparing to fly east and battle on in a reshaped race. One, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was reassessing his campaign.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth with about 13 percent of the vote after an onslaught of negative ads, vowed to continue, taking particular aim at Romney.

"Do we want a Reagan conservative who changed Washington, or do we want a Massachusetts moderate who will be pretty good at managing the decay?" Gingrich said, congratulating Santorum for running a "positive campaign."

The nominating contest has had an unsettled feel, with different candidates rising and falling within weeks as GOP voters auditioned each of them for the role of main conservative alternative. Romney remained steady in the polls with the support of about a quarter of Republicans, a big enough plurality to sustain him but small enough to raise questions about the breadth of his appeal.

Romney has had trouble uniting the factions of the modern Republican coalition. He has attracted support from the party establishment and fiscal conservatives, but wins fewer fans among tea-party activists and social conservatives who question his health-care law in Massachusetts, past support for abortion rights and gay rights, and ideological flexibility.

Paul has also been a constant, with a dedicated base of libertarian voters attracted to his noninterventionist approach to foreign policy and proposals to reduce government. He had the best organization in Iowa.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the House Tea Party Caucus chair who boasts of her "titanium spine," was the first conservative to rise up as the anti-Romney, winning the Ames straw poll, a test of organizing strength, last summer.

She was eclipsed almost immediately by Perry, who had close ties to the tea party movement, a stellar record of job creation in his state, and the ability to raise enough money to compete directly with the Romney juggernaut.

He failed to live up to conservatives' expectations, however. Stumbling debate performances raised questions about his ability to compete on the national stage, and his poll numbers slid, relegating him to second-tier status.

Perry finished with about 10 percent of the vote, and Bachmann was sixth, in her native state, with 5 percent. Perry said that he would return to Texas and "with prayer and reflection, I'm going to decide the best path forward."

Unlike past elections, when personal campaigning in early states helped voters sort out the contenders, a series of 13 highly watched televised debates became a kind of electronic national primary that served the winnowing role.

The debates produced a surprise front-runner in early fall: former pizza executive and talk-show host Herman Cain, who rode his shot to the top of the polls based on his dramatic speaking style and "9-9-9" tax plan. But he faltered after demonstrating little grasp of many of the details that people expect a president to know, and dropped out after revelations of sexual-harassment allegations and a long-term extramarital affair raised questions among GOP voters.

Gingrich, whose campaign almost collapsed last summer, became the next leader. But he could not survive millions of dollars' worth of attack ads from his rivals and their allies, dredging up his negative baggage.

Gingrich on Tuesday called Romney a "liar" and fake conservative who had distorted his record, and promised to take him on sharply in New Hampshire, where Romney has held a commanding lead in polls. Gingrich had vowed to stay positive in Iowa.

Santorum campaigned largely the old-fashioned way, spending months in Iowa, holding more than 370 events in all 99 counties. He was languishing in the single digits in polls as recently as two weeks ago, but bobbed up as the last conservative alternative standing.

"If Iowa can give us a little bit of spark, we've got a lot of tinder on the ground in New Hampshire and Florida," Santorum said over the weekend. "We're building slowly but surely."

The quirky caucuses have their charms, but they're not all that predictive. Only twice in the modern era have the winners gone on to capture the Republican nomination: Robert Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. But no Republican who has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary has failed to gone on to capture the party's nomination.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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