DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) â€” Mitt Romney eked out a minuscule 8-vote victory over Rick Santorum in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, the state party chairman said early Wednesday, ringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.
Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, Matt Strawn said Romney had 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win.
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.
"Game on," declared Santorum, jaw set, after easily outdistancing several other contenders to emerge as Romney's unvarnished conservative rival for the primaries yet ahead.
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.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul ran third and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth. Both men vowed to carry the fight to New Hampshire's primary next week and beyond.
Not so Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth and told supporters he would return home to reassess his candidacy.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was a distant sixth, and her campaign appeared in disarray. She told reporters she would carry on â€” less than an hour after her campaign manager raised doubts in an Associated Press interview about whether she would stay in the race.
Romney is heavily favored in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10. South Carolina on Jan. 21 figures to be a tougher test, the first contest in the South and a state that is part of the Republican political base.
Already, the top two finishers in Iowa were staking out their turf.
Officials said Romney would receive an endorsement in the morning from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who twice won the New Hampshire primary and was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
Santorum said that 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.
Returns from all 1,774 precincts showed both Romney with 24.55 percent support and Santorum with 24.54 percent. Paul drew 21.5 percent of the votes. Romney had 30,015 votes, Santorum 30,007 and Paul 26,219.
Gingrich had 13 percent, followed by Perry at 10 percent and Bachmann with 5 percent.
The results are non-binding when it comes to picking delegates to the GOP convention next summer in Tampa. But an Associated Press analysis showed Romney would win 13 and Santorum 12, if there were no changes in their support as the campaign wears on.
No matter how close the final results in Iowa, there were no plans for a recount.
Doug Heye, a spokesman for the state party, said the ballots were counted under the supervision of campaign representatives who certified the totals. He said the numbers were double-checked when they were reported to state officials and there was no reason to check them again.
"On to New Hampshire," Gingrich said to the cheers of his supporters, vowing to carry on his campaign no matter the Iowa outcome.
The former speaker led in the pre-caucus polls as recently as a few weeks ago, only to fall under the weight of attack ads run by a super PAC run by allies of Romney.
Paul, too, said he was looking forward to the nation's first primary in a week's time, telling supporters his was one of two campaigns with the resources to do the distance. "There's going to be an election up in New Hampshire, and believe me this momentum is going to continue and this movement is going to continue and we are going to keep scoring," he told supporters.
The Texas lawmaker didn't say so, but the other campaign already built for a long campaign was Romney's. The former Massachusetts governor was closeted with aides and his family as he sweated out the caucus count in a state that humbled him four years ago.
This time, win or lose, he appeared destined to draw a smaller share of the vote than the 25.2 percent he did then.
Each of the three in the top tier strove to create a distinct identity and brought a different style to the race.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, ran the old-fashioned way, spending parts or all of 250 days campaigning in the state in hopes of emerging as the preferred conservative alternative to Romney.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, brought organization and money to the table, and was aided by deep-pocketed allies who ran television commercials attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others. That allowed Romney to take the high road in person, running as a former businessman who knew how to create jobs and defeat Obama.
Paul, the Texas congressman, was something of a blend of the two approaches, with money and organization. He drew on the support of younger caucus-goers with a libertarian-leaning approach that included a call to legalize marijuana and bring home U.S. troops from overseas.