DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — 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 for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth. He flew home to decide whether to stay in the race. It appears the answer is "yes." He tweeted Wednesday that he was bound for South Carolina.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was a distant sixth, and her campaign appeared in disarray. Bachmann said Wednesday she has "decided to stand aside" but would continue fighting to overturn what she called President Barack Obama's "socialist policies."
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.