Des Moines -’s quest to swiftly lock down the Republican presidential nomination with a commanding finish in the Iowa caucuses was undercut on Tuesday night by the surging candidacy of , who fought him to a draw on a shoestring budget by winning over conservatives who remain skeptical of Mr. Romney.
In the first Republican contest of the season, the two candidates were separated much of the night by only a sliver of votes, with Mr. Romney being declared the winner by eight ballots early Wednesday morning. But the outcome offered Mr. Santorum a chance to emerge as the alternative to Mr. Romney as the race moves to New Hampshire and South Carolina without Gov. Rick Perry, who announced that he was returning to Texas to assess his candidacy.
“Being here in Iowa has made me a better candidate,” Mr. Santorum said, arriving at a caucus in Clive, where he urged Republicans to vote their conscience. “Don’t sell America short. Don’t put someone out there from Iowa who isn’t capable of doing what America needs done.”
The Iowa caucuses did not deliver a clean answer to what type of candidate Republicans intend to rally behind to try to defeatand win back the White House. With 99 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney, whose views represent the polar sides of the party, each had 24.6 percent.
“On to New Hampshire, let’s get that job done!” Mr. Romney told supporters at a late-night rally, when he was five votes shy of Mr. Santorum. “Come visit us there, we’ve got some work ahead.”
The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was in 1980, when George Bush beat Ronald Reagan by two percentage points.
Representativeof Texas was a close third on Tuesday with 21 percent of the caucus votes.
“We will go on,” he said in an upbeat speech. “There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
The Iowa caucuses, which sounded the opening bell of the Republican contest, did not bring the clarity to the nominating fight as Mr. Romney had hoped.
But even though he did not secure the authoritative victory that he had fought for in the last week, he handily dispatched two rivals who were once seen as his biggest threats, Mr. Perry and former House Speaker. And Mr. Romney is poised on Wednesday to collect the endorsement of Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Mr. Gingrich was in fourth place with 13 percent of the votes, followed by Mr. Perry with 10 percent and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota with 5 percent. More than 120,000 Republicans took part in the caucus, a turnout that was slightly higher than four years ago.
With Mr. Perry heading back to Texas, Mr. Gingrich pledged to press forward and be on the stage at the next debate on Saturday in New Hampshire.
“There will be a great debate in the Barack Obama,” Mr. Gingrich said, pledging to raise the intensity of his criticism of Mr. Romney before the next contests. He offered a glimpse at his approach, calling Mr. Romney a liar whose conservative credentials could not be trusted.before we are prepared to have a great debate with
The determined band of Republicans caucusgoers streamed into firehouses, gymnasiums and even a few living rooms across Iowa for the precinct meetings. The caucuses do not award any of the 1,150 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination, but the result began reshaping the race as the campaign shifted to New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A snapshot of the Republican mind-set, according to polls of voters as they entered caucus sites, found that Mr. Romney had won the most support among those who said defeating Mr. Obama was the most important quality in a candidate.
Mr. Romney’s business experience, which is the spine of his candidacy, was a draw for voters concerned about the economy. Among voters who said the economy was the issue that mattered most in deciding whom to support, a plurality — about a third — said they would support Mr. Romney.
In one of the most conservative pockets in the state, the northwestern Iowa town of Alton, a supporter of Mr. Romney urged Republicans gathered at a firehouse to resist “throwing your vote away.”
“I didn’t vote for Mitt Romney in the last caucus, and I wish things had turned out differently,” said Dan Ruppert, who rose to deliver a testimonial for Mr. Romney. “I’m definitely going to vote for Mitt Romney now.”
The surveys found that Mr. Paul had far outpaced his rivals among caucusgoers under 40. But he dropped behind Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum among voters 40 and older. Even though older caucusgoers made up a much larger portion of the electorate, Mr. Paul’s outsize lead among younger voters kept him competitive.
In the survey of voters arriving at their caucuses, which was conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool of television networks and The Associated Press, nearly four in 10 said they had never attended a caucus before. Those new attendees supported Mr. Paul over any other candidate.
Many caucusgoers did not make up their minds until late; entrance polls indicated that nearly half had decided whom to support within the last few days. Mr. Santorum was the candidate who benefited the most from these late-deciders — a third of them backed him.
Nearly six in 10 voters consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, the poll found, which illustrated the surge for Mr. Santorum in the closing days of the campaign here.
Mr. Santotrum celebrated late Tuesday by recalling how he had campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties. “Thank you so much Iowa,” he told the crowd at a rally in Johnston. “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 in taking back this country.”
Mr. Santorum now faces a challenge of trying to broaden his campaign organization on the fly to compete with the structure that Mr. Romney has spent years building. His aides said he will campaign this week in New Hampshire and South Carolina, vowing to compete with Mr. Romney everywhere.
In polls of Republicans entering the caucus sites, just more than four in 10 said the most important issue was the economy, while about one-third said the federal budget deficit was their chief concern. Asked what quality was the most important in a candidate, about three in 10 voters said the ability to defeat Mr. Obama, while about a quarter said someone who was a true conservative and another quarter said someone who had strong moral character.
As Republicans turned out across the state to render the first judgment of the candidates, some voters conceded that they were still wrestling with selecting someone who stands the best chance of winning in November or one who is fully aligned with conservative principles.
Don Lutz, who works in real estate, arrived early and called himself a “Newt guy.” But he said he would not cast his vote that way. He said he was supporting Mr. Romney.
“I don’t want to have a vote for nothing,” Mr. Lutz said in an interview at his caucus meeting in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines. “I just don’t think that Newt is going to be there in the end. When I look at the business side of things, Mitt is probably the most qualified.”
The fissures in the party, particularly among social and economic conservatives, have been exposed during the early stage of the presidential nominating battle. But while Republicans have yet to unite behind a single candidate, they are united in their determination to defeat Mr. Obama.
While Republicans were the focus of the night, thousands of Democrats gathered at their caucus meetings, too. Mr. Obama addressed supporters via video, urging them to come to his defense in the general election.
“It’s going to be a big battle, though,” Mr. Obama said. “I hope you guys are geared up.”
A woman piped in from Cedar Rapids: “How do you respond to people who say you haven’t done enough?”
“That’s why we need four more years,” Mr. Obama said.
The Iowa campaign, which provided a laboratory for the unregulated money from outside groups that will course through the presidential campaign, quickly moved on to New Hampshire, which will hold its primary next Tuesday, followed by South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31.
While the New Hampshire primary has traditionally drawn the lion’s share of attention after the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Romney’s strong lead in polls in the state has changed the strategy of some candidates, and South Carolina was quickly emerging as a focal point of the race.
Mrs. Bachmann, whose political fortunes have declined since she won the Iowa straw poll in August, said the caucuses were the beginning of the race for president, not the end of the road for candidates who finish at the bottom of the pack.
“The people of Iowa have spoken, and they have written the very first chapter in this long campaign,” she said, not elaborating on her plans. “There are many more paths to be written on the path to the nomination.”