Romney edges Santorum in historic Iowa caucuses

Paul finishes 3rd; candidates set to move on to New Hampshire

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Winning the closest caucus in Iowa’s history, Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum by just eight votes Tuesday night as Republican voters kicked off the 2012 campaign by sending a signal to Mr. Romney that his path to the nomination could be difficult.

With all precincts finally reporting early Wednesday morning Mr. Romney had 30,015 votes to Mr. Santorum’s 30,007. Rep. Ron Paul trailed in third place with 26,219. Together, they constituted a clear top tier of the field, easily outdistancing the other major candidates who competed here.

“Thank you so much, Iowa,” Mr. Santorum said about 11:20 p.m. in Johnston, Iowa, with the race still uncalled. “You, you, by standing up and not compromising, by standing up and being bold and leading, leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step of taking back this country.”

Most worrisome for Mr. Romney, the candidate with the deepest pockets and most extensive campaign, is that despite winning, he actually garnered fewer votes this year than he did in 2008, when he came in second to Mike Huckabee — a blow that helped doom his campaign that year. That year he won 30,021 votes, 14 more than this year, signaling his support here has stagnated despite four more years of campaigning.

Still, he was upbeat as he addressed voters just before midnight in Des Moines.

“We also feel it’s been a great victory for us,” Mr. Romney said, showering praise on Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul and then immediately pivoting to criticize President Obama.

And the night may have narrowed the field, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who placed fifth, saying he will take time off to rethink his bid.

“With the voters’ decision tonight in Iowa, I’ve decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus,” he said.

Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul both turned in surprising performances — the former drawing on self-described pro-life and social conservative voters, while the latter attracted independents and self-described moderates and liberals.

“Once again, we’ve had a fantastic showing for this cause,” Mr. Paul said at his post-caucus party, saying he has injected his foreign policy and Constitutional liberty ideas into the GOP’s debate.

“Tonight we have come out of an election — there are essentially three winners, three top vote getters. We will go on, we will raise the money. I have no doubt about the volunteers, they’re going to be there.”

Iowa’s vote amounts to a straw poll. Actual delegates to the nominating convention are decided later this year. But it does serve as the kick-off to the campaign season, and it held bad news for Mr. Romney, who found the traditionally conservative primary base of the GOP questioning his commitment to their issues.

The 2012 nomination battle has been dominated by those voters’ search for a non-Romney candidate to rally around, and Tuesday’s results will make Mr. Santorum and to a lesser extent Mr. Paul the likely candidates.

Rounding out the standings in the partial returns were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in fourth, Mr. Perry in fifth and Rep. Michele Bachmann in sixth. All three of them had led in the polls here at one time.

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