Mitt Romney takes Iowa by 8 votes over Rick Santorum

January 4th, 2012 by Staff

www.boston.com – DES MOINES — Mitt Romney beat former senator Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses by a total of 8 votes, after state officials tallied more than 100,000 votes over six-plus hours in the closest such election in state history.

It was a stunning end for what had been a volatile runup to the vote-taking.

Both GOP candidates won 25 percent, with Ron Paul third at 21 percent.

The closeness of the win, and the surprising strength of Santorum, blunted the momentum Romney would have otherwise carried into New Hampshire and the next phase of the Republican primary.

Newt Gingrich came in fourth, with 13 percent, followed by Rick Perry, at 10 percent, and Michele Bachmann, at 5 percent. An emotional Perry, who was briefly the national front-runner when he entered the race, front-runner, indicated the future of his campaign was now in doubt, saying he planned to return to Texas to ‘‘reassess’’ his candidacy and ‘‘determine whether there is a path forward.’’

Four years after a deflating second-place finish in Iowa dealt Romney a serious setback, he sought to project confidence even as Santorum — as well as Newt Gingrich — forecasted the harsh attacks they plan to unleash on the former Massachusetts governor, who has rarely been put on the defensive.

‘‘We also feel it’s been a great victory for us here,’’ Romney said early today at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, before the final votes were tallied. His aides took down Teleprompters moments before he spoke, and his remarks were mostly a recitation of his stump speech.

Romney carries many advantages as the race heads to a broader stage. With a vast fund-raising and organizational network, he is already advertising in Florida, which votes Jan. 31, and is planning to campaign this week in both New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, Jan. 10, and South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21. He is also expected to be endorsed today by Senator John McCain, his Romney’s rival from the 2008 campaign and the party’s eventual nominee, according to CNN. The endorsement will take place in New Hampshire, a state McCain won in 2000 and 2008.

Santorum’s strong finish now gives him the opportunity to argue that he is the most credible challenger to Romney, capable of capturing the support of those who consider Romney too moderate. Virtually ignored for most of the summer and fall, Santorum was rewarded by Iowans after visiting all 99 counties and running a traditional campaign focused on handshakes and pizza meet-and-greets.

Now he faces a more daunting task as the race moves to a national stage where he will need to raise more money, build a more robust organization, and defend himself as his record faces more intense scrutiny.

‘‘Thank you so much Iowa,’’ said Santorum, who is planning to spend much of the next week in New Hampshire. ‘‘You, by standing up and not compromising ….. have taken the first step of taking back this country.’’

Romney’s close finish with Santorum immediately emboldened his critics to take him on more directly. In Iowa, Romney never faced the type of attack ads that his former aides and supporters financed to bring down his rivals, particularly Gingrich.

Gingrich, who placed a disappointing fourth place and had previously vowed to run a positive campaign, is taking out a full-page ad targeting Romney in today’s Manchester Union Leader.

In a speech last night studded with barbs for his rivals, Gingrich cast himself as a conservative change agent and said Romney is ‘‘a Massachusetts moderate who, in fact, will be pretty good at managing the decay’’ in Washington.

Gingrich also sharply criticized Paul, saying the Texas congressman’s isolationist foreign policy poses a grave danger to the nation and its strongest Middle East ally, Israel.

Paul had a finish that could deepen doubts about his ability to broaden his support beyond his ardent and vocal supporters. He had one of the strongest organizations in Iowa and was hoping to make a statement that he is not just a protest candidate, as his critics suggest. Last night Paul said he claimed he had ‘‘one of three tickets’’ out of Iowa.

‘‘We have tremendous opportunities to continue this momentum,’’ Paul said to supporters who cheered and chanted his name. ‘‘We will go on. We will raise the money. I have no doubt about the volunteers — they’re going to be there.’’

Iowans assembled at 1,774 precincts across the state last night on a cold but clear night and jump-started a nominating contest that now shifts today will shift to New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The nominating contest this year has had a topsy-turvy feel to it, with different candidates rising and falling within weeks. The one constant has been Romney’s steady support of around 25 percent in the polls, which has both sustained his campaign and raised questions about why he could not broaden his appeal.

He has struggled to fully unite different factions of the party, attracting fiscal conservatives but not as many Tea Party activists and social conservatives who question his health care law in Massachusetts, past support for abortion rights, and willingness to change his views.

Last night, he didn’t expand his base of support beyond what he brought in four years ago. In 2008, when nearly 120,000 votes were cast, Romney got 29,949 votes, or 25.2 percent. Last night, he reached almost exactly the same overall total and percentage. An Iowa GOP official said there would be no recount.

Initially Romney was reluctant to devote himself to Iowa, stung by his experience in 2008 when he lost to Mike Huckabee despite dramatically outspending the former Arkansas governor. But as social and religious conservatives never rallied behind one candidate — as they did with Huckabee — the Romney campaign sensed an opening. They had quietly kept their campaign operation in place, contacting key supporters and recruiting volunteers even with a staff that was significantly smaller than in 2008. One night last week at a rally in Ames, the garage door of a factory opened and a giant Romney campaign bus pulled in. ‘‘Eye of the Tiger’’ blared from the speakers, and any pretense of lowering expectations washed away. The crowds were larger, and Romney seemed to grow more confident by the day.

Romney and his supporters also decided last month to use the state as a battleground for stemming Gingrich’s rise. As the former House speaker rose in the polls, the Romney campaign sensed that Gingrich could capture Iowa, then gather enough momentum to threaten Romney in New Hampshire and other states. But under a barrage of negative attack ads — most of them run by a group of Romney supporters — Gingrich fell in the polls and is still trying to find a way to recover.

Just over two weeks ago, Gingrich arrived in Iowa as the front-runner, brimming with confidence. But his perch atop the field was short-lived, and his attempts to stay positive while his rivals and their allies pummeled him with negative ads were woefully inadequate.

Gingrich was blasted with $7 million in attack ads, including a sustained assault from a super PAC run by close associates of and former aides to Romney. The super PAC’s ads skewered the former speaker for having ‘‘more baggage than the airlines,’’ and for being fined for ethics violations.

Traveling the state by bus with his wife, Callista, Gingrich beseeched Iowans to ‘‘send a signal to the whole country: that the age of the consultant-driven, dishonest, negative commercial is over.’’ But the approach fell flat.

There will now be renewed questions about whether Bachmann, who was once a favorite after winning the Ames Straw Poll in August, can survive. Although she vowed last night to stay in the race, her campaign has struggled in recent months. and she now will have to decide whether to remain in the race, or return to her congressional district in Minnesota and run for a fourth term. She placed lower than anyone except the former Utah governor, Jon Huntsman, who ignored Iowa and is focusing his campaign on New Hampshire.

Perry entered the race this summer as the candidate conservatives had been longing for: brash, tough-talking, and pistol-packing, he had close ties to the Tea Party and an enviable job creation record in Texas.

A formidable fund-raiser, he also had the money to compete with Romney and seemed to pose the most formidable challenge to the former governor of Massachusetts’s methodical campaign. But a series of faltering — even cringe-inducing — debate performances made him the butt of jokes, and suggested he was not ready to compete on the national stage. His poll numbers soon slipped, relegating him to second-tier status.

In Iowa, Perry sought to revive his campaign by appealing overtly to evangelical Christians who make up an influential slice of the state’s Republican electorate. Competing for that crucial bloc with Santorum, he wove biblical references into his stump speech, touted the closing Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas, and aired a commercial in which he vowed to ‘‘end Obama’s war on religion.’’

But his fifth place finish in Iowa last night wounded his prospects.

According to entrance polls taken by CNN as voters entered their caucus site, 58 percent said they considered themselves to be born-again evangelicals — a similar number to four years ago. Of those, 25 percent said they would vote for Santorum; 21 percent for Paul; and 14 percent for Romney. Two-thirds said they supported the Tea Party movement.

In what could be a good sign for Romney, the biggest concern was the economy and the most important candidate quality was having a candidate who could beat Obama. Romney won among voters who ranked those as their top issue.


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