Updated at 8:15 a.m. ET
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney eked out a razor-thin victory in Tuesday night’s Iowa Republican caucuses, holding off former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s late-in-the-game-surge to win.
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Jan 3.
After a night that saw the two candidates claim the lead, the GOP announced that Romney beat Santorum by just eight votes to become the apparent winner. Ron Paul finished third.
Romney and Santorum remained virtually tied as returns came back throughout the evening in this cycle's first nominating contest. At the conclusion, each ended up at almost exactly a 25 percent share of the vote.
Chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, Matt Strawn, announced Romney got 30,015 votes and Santorum received 30,007 votes out of a record turnout of 122,255.
The result represented a dramatic closing act by Santorum to cement a furious, last-minute surge during which conservatives rallied around his campaign.
"Game on!" the jubilant ex-senator declared in remarks shortly after midnight.
The results were also humbling to an extent for the Romney campaign, which had appeared so confident in victory that it planned an overnight stay for the candidate in Iowa tonight instead of New Hampshire, where Romney's built a firewall. The former governor had also appeared to predict victory in a Monday night speech.
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U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum addresses an Iowa crowd on January 3.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished third, at 21 percent.
Three other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann had also sought to beat expectations and rejuvenate their candidacies in subsequent primary contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Gingrich had the edge, at 13 percent, over Perry (10 percent) while Bachmann finished in sixth, at 5 percent.
Perry said he would take the next few days to re-assess his campaign.
"I've decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight's caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race," he said in remarks shortly before midnight.
But the story of the night was Santorum, who managed to rally conservatives, who'd searched desperately throughout the campaign for an alternative to Romney, after other would-be contenders washed out throughout the fall.
Santorum noted "another candidate in this race," referring to Romney, whom pundits viewed as more electable. He paused when a member of his crowd said "RomneyCare," referring to the Massachusetts health reform law Romney had enacted but conservatives deplore for its similarities to President Obama's health care reforms.
"Let me tell you: What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts, and a plan that includes everyone," Santorum said.
"We are off to New Hampshire," Santorum declared, "With your help and God's grace we'll have another fun night a week from now."
Romney, by contrast, continued to act like the campaign's frontrunner in the evening's last remarks. He congratulated Santorum and Paul on a well-fought campaign, but trained most of his criticism on President Obama.
Photo Blog: Caucus day photos from Iowa
In the end, Romney essentially matched his vote total from 2008, though he invested much less time and money in Iowa this cycle. But he failed to deliver the knock-out blow that his campaign had hoped for by playing in Iowa, and the results underscore the existing narrative in the campaign, that Romney is struggling to win over skeptical conservatives.
Sensing that Romney is vulnerable, the campaign now seems poised to move into a new phase in which the former Massachusetts governor will suffer more scrutiny.
Gingrich presaged this new phase in his remarks Tuesday evening, in which he vowed to continue his campaign beginning Wednesday in New Hampshire. He assailed Paul and Romney, too, while congratulating Santorum for running a positive campaign, and pointedly noted he wished he could say the same for other candidates, meaning Romney.
"We are not going to go out and run nasty ads," said Gingrich, who labeled Romney a "Massachusetts moderate" again. "But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative, that may be more of a comment on his record than the nature of politics."
Newt Gingrich addresses supporters in Iowa after finishing outside the top three, emphasizing the need for a national discussion about reforming American governmental institutions and commenting on his fellow competitors.
Santorum punched his ticket out of Iowa in part by emerging as the winner of a virtual game of musical chairs among candidates in Iowa who had themselves as the anti-Romney candidate. The former Pennsylvania senator had campaigned in Iowa the “traditional” way, having started to stump there well before any candidate, and becoming the first candidate to visit all of the state’s 99 counties.
The former Pennsylvania senator performed best among caucus-goers who describe themselves as very conservative, according to entrance poll data. He also won over evangelical Christians and caucus attendees who tabbed social issues as one of their priorities.
Romney had hoped to score a knock-out punch in Iowa after having scarcely competed in the race until later this fall. His campaign is hoping that a late push in Iowa, plus a victory next Tuesday in New Hampshire (where Romney leads in the polls), could all but clinch the nomination.
The Hawkeye State had ended up as Romney’s Achilles Heel in 2008. After having invested heavily in winning the contest, Romney limped out of Iowa after a disappointing second place finish.
Romney tied his 25 percent share of the caucus tally he earned in 2008 by attracting the support of caucus-goers who valued electability and the economy -- core elements of Romney's 2012 message. The most deeply conservative caucus participants shied away from Romney.
In a sign that the establishment was undaunted by Romney's finish, Sen. John McCain -- the 2008 GOP nominee and Romney's sparring partner from that cycle -- was set to back Romney on Wednesday in New Hampshire.
The results raise the stakes for the primary in New Hampshire, scheduled for Jan. 10, and two subsequent primaries in South Carolina and Florida in the second half of this month.
There are two debates scheduled for this coming Saturday and Sunday, which might provide the springboard for a new, naster stage of the campaign, with the scrutiny focused on Romney.
Paul, meanwhile, managed a third place finish by leaning on an unorthodox coalition of libertarian Republicans, young caucus-goers and independents.
"We will go on, we will raise the money," he told supporters this evening. He'll head next to New Hampshire.
Congressman Ron Paul addresses his supporters in Iowa as NBC projects him to place third in the Iowa caucuses.
His campaign, both in 2008 and 2012, has been notable for its intense enthusiasm from supporters and prolific fundraising. And in Iowa, where the strength of a candidate's organization typically correlates with a strong performance, Paul is hoping his well-organized supporters can help secure victory.
But his foes had also assailed his foreign policy views, which emphasize a limited role for the U.S. on the world stage. In a traditionally hawkish party, it’s led some political observers to suggest that Paul might have a difficult time building a broad coalition of support within the GOP.
Michele Bachmann speaks to supporters in Iowa after a poor showing in caucus votes, reiterating her criticisms of President Obama.
Tuesday's results also raise fresh questions about the viability of Perry and Bachmann, who each spent heavily to win only fifth and sixth-place finishes, respectively. Bachmann made no indication of the future of her campaign during remarks late Tuesday evening.
For their parts, Bachmann and Perry have said before tonight they’ll head to South Carolina, which hosts its primary -- the third nominating contest -- on Jan. 21.
In a sign he's playing the long game, though, Romney has scheduled a trip to South Carolina overnight on Thursday and Friday morning. He’s also running ads in the Palmetto State, and announced Tuesday that he’s begun running ads in Florida, which hosts the next primary, as well.