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UPDATE: Romney Wins Iowa Caucuses By 8 Votes Over Santorum; Paul Finishes Third

Santorum, Romney in closest race in GOP caucus history.

Mitt Romney lost the support he had four years ago in huge swaths of rural Iowa but managed to win big in the state's largest population centers to claim victory by a mere eight votes over Rick Santorum in the closest GOP race in the storied history of the Iowa caucuses. Ron Paul finished a strong third.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who finished a poor fifth, behind former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich, said he would return home to "assess the results," politicial speak for his probable decision to drop out of the race.

Iowa native Michele Bachmann, who failed to win even one of the state's 99 counties, finished in sixth, just ahead of Jon Huntsman, who did not compete.

In percentages, the results showed Romney and Santorum with 25 percent each, Paul with 21, Gingrich with 13, Perry with 10 and Bachmann with 5. Jon Huntsman, who did not campaign in Iowa, had 1 percent.

Romney's strength was largely in the center of the state, in Polk, Dallas and Story counties, where he won handily over Santorum and Paul.

"Those who believed in the cause and were willing to stand behind us, to each and everyone of you I want to thank you for leading and doing what was necessary for liberty," Santorum told a cheering crowd at The Stoney Creek Inn in Johnston following the results, which were essentially a tie.

He made the case that he could connect with the "ordinary Americans" in Ohio and his home state of Pennsylvania, important swing states in any presidential election.

"What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone," he said. "A plan that says, we will work together to get America to work."

Romney worked in his speech at the Hotel Fort Des Moines to convey that his nomination is inevitable, congratulating Santorum and Paul but otherwise turning his attention solely to President Obama, who the eventual GOP nominee will face on November 6. 

He said Obama is in "over his head" in dealing with the country's faltering economy.

"You have 25 million people out of work," Romney said. "This is not just a statistic. These are real people."

His finish, though, is sure to make fresh an old question: Does Romney have the appeal to broaden his support?

Based solely on the Iowa results, the answer is no. His percentage of the vote was almost identical to that in 2008. His total this election, in fact, was 30,015, six votes fewer than four years ago. 

The finally tally brought to an end a screaming, jolting, roller-coaster ride of a Caucus season. Six candidates had surged to the top of the polls then fell away; three of them splattered on the local political landscape, and one campaign, Herman Cain’s, was dead before it hit the ground.

Gingrich was defiant in his concession speech and seemed even angry in his loss, criticizing Romney and Paul for a blitz of negative advertising against him and congratulating Santorum for running "a great, positive campaign."

He was subjected to an unprecedented $3.3 million negative campaign of television spots and direct mail by Restore Our Future, an independent but Romney-connected super PAC, which reversed Gingrich's rise. Paul’s campaign, and then Perry’s, blasted Gingrich as well.

He hinted to his supporters at the Veteran's Auditorium in Des Moines that he would return fire with Romney and Paul after largely retreating when they attacked him over the Iowa airwaves.

"We are not going out to run nasty ads," he said. "But I also reserve the right to tell the truth."

Romney campaigned far less for Iowa's 28 delegates than he did for the 2008 caucuses, skipping the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames and all but ignoring the state until the final week heading into tonight's vote. He campaigned mostly on the western and eastern edges of the state in counties he won last time around, when he captured 25.2 percent of the vote and finished a distant second to evangelical Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who had 34.4 percent.

Next week, New Hampshire voters have their say, which bodes well for Romney. Polls there show him with the support of 46 percent of likely primary voters, far ahead of Ron Paul’s 18 percent, Gingrich’s 14 percent and Santorum’s 4 percent. 

South Carolina and Florida are next on the nominating calendar, and Romney may not fare so well there. Polls show Gingrich with leads in those states, although the surveys of likely voters occurred in mid-December.

That was before Romney and his PACs combined to light a destructive fuse on the Gingrich campaign, and the former Speaker’s own lack of organization in the state allowed it to ignite.

Overall, Iowans were going to their caucuses without much conviction for any candidate. Less than a week before the vote, more than 40 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers reported they had not settled firmly on any candidate.

Paul finished with only 10 percent in the 2008 caucuses, taking only Jefferson County in Iowa. But he finished a strong second in last summer's Straw Poll, and while other candidates spent the campaign gaining and then losing supporters, Paul slowly climbed to the top of the polls.

His 21 percent finish more than doubled his previous effort in Iowa.

In Ankeny, he addressed supporters just after 10 p.m., when it was clear he would finish third.

"Nobody else has people like you, who are working hard and are so enthusiastic and who believe in something," he told a cheering crowd at the Courtyard Des Moines-Ankeny.

He looked forward to next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, and said that the race was now between him, Romney and Santorum.

"Believe me, this momentum is going to continue," Paul said. "This effort is going to continue, and we're going to keep scoring just as we have tonight."

Rick Santorum, whose campaign wheels were spinning in the mud only about 10 days ago, finally gained traction in the final week of the campaign, but whether his finish would be strong enough to help him in New Hampshire or South Carolina remains to be seen.

Santorum was  from Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley of The Family Leader, a prominent evangelical group in Iowa who helped sweep Huckabee to victory eight years ago. The Family Leader’s board of directors, though, chose not endorse as a group, making it unclear how much Santorum would benefit from its organization on the ground.

For Gingrich, the Iowa vote ended his rise and dramatic crash from the top of the GOP heap in Iowa, where he sat only last month 15 points ahead of Romney and Paul.

Perry announced his candidacy the same day as Bachmann’s Straw Poll victory, and he immediately rose to the top of the field as Bachmann fluttered downward.

He stayed there until a series of poor debate performances, and then it was Herman Cain’s turn to sit atop the polls. He lasted only until his own problem with geopolitics — think of him struggling with U.S. policy toward Libya — sent his support scattering until he crashed, burned and got out of the race in the face of sexual harrassment allegations against him.

Bachmann’s campaign began its downward spiral shortly after  in August and Rick Perry joined the race. She was hurt by a series of misstatements, including proclaiming during one debate that it was dangerous to give the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) to girls before they are sexually active to prevent cervical cancer later in life.

Later, despite constant replaying of her remarks, she denied what she had said. 

Despite touting her Iowa roots -- she was born in Waterloo -- Bachmann failed to gain any real support in Iowa or the other early Republican voting states, and hours before the Caucus she canceled several appearances in South Carolina.

After Bachmann’s team resigned in New Hampshire, she all but dissolved her efforts to compete there.  find her running fifth in New Hampshire. The most recent polls in South Carolina showed Bachmann running third or fourth over the past month.

She told supporters at the West Des Moines Marriott that she had called all the other candidates to congratulate them for their finish.

"It was the people of Iowa who chose tonight," she told a somewhat subdued crowd, reading from a prepared statement. "It wasn't the pundits, it wasn't the media."

Despite her dismal finish -- she failed to win any one of Iowa's 99 counties -- she maintained that she could be the candidate to win the White House come November.

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