Wafer-thin victory for Romney, Reps appear divided in 1st vote

Washington: The first Republican vote to pick Barack Obama`s presidential challenger turned out to be a photo-finish, as front-runner Mitt Romney barely managed to sneak past conservative Rick Santorum, whose surprising late surge made the Iowa contest the closest ever in history.

Former Massachusetts governor Romney finally defeated Pennsylvania Senator Santorum by a wafer-thin margin of eight votes as official results came after hours of agonising wait in which both candidates kept leading and trailing each other. In fact, moments before the final tally, Santorum was leading by four votes, and the extent of the nail-biter can be gauged from the fact that at one point Romney was leading by a single vote.

The Iowa caucus vote is a crucial first before the Republican battle for the White House challenge goes to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. From Iowa, candidates rush to New Hampshire for the next round of primaries.

Romney got 30,015 votes while Santorum received 30,007 votes at end of the tally in which 1,22,255 votes were cast. While the contest ended up being neck and neck between Romney and Santorum, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was a crucial third angle to the battle, coming a close third with 21 per cent of the caucus votes.

With a fractured result, the vote showed that the Republicans are divided over the choice and are yet to throw a clear answer as to what kind of candidate they would finally pick to mount a challenge to the incumbent Obama.

The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was in 1980, when George Bush beat Ronald Reagan by two percentage points.

Romney, who had initially expected to romp home comfortably in the first vote, refrained from claiming victory in his address to the support base in Iowa. In fact, he chose to share the credit with Santorum and Paul. "… congratulations to Rick Santorum, this has been a great victory for him and for his effort. He`s worked very hard in Iowa. We also feel this has been a great victory for us here. Ron Paul as well, had a great night," Romney said.

Santorum, who has surged ahead only in the last few weeks surprising many pollsters and even his rivals, argued for his conservative platform. "It`s now or never for Conservative voters," he said in an email to his supporters.

Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, ranked fourth in this race of seven Republican candidates, while Texas Governor Rick Perry, took the fifth slot, leaving behind Minnesota Congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at the bottom of the heap.

There are already indications that Bachmann might drop from the race. Perry, on his part, announced that he was headed to Texas to reassess his campaign prospects.
The Washington Post reported that the results are a sign of "a splintered and increasingly fractious" field as the Republican presidential race gathers pace.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain has decided to endorse Romney as the latter heads to New Hampshire for the primary elections, in what is expected to give a big boost to his campaign, media reports said. However, as he heads to New Hampshire, Romney is expected to see the strongest challenge coming from Gingrich.

"We are at the beginning of a great campaign," Gingrich told supporters, noting that "new battle begins" after Iowa as he boarded a plane to New Hampshire. "We survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary," Gingrich said referring to the massive negative campaign against him by the Romney camp.

The former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, however, said that he would continue to run a positive campaign. "But I reserve the right to tell the truth. On to New Hampshire," he said.

Addressing his supporters, Santorum claimed it was only he who can defeat Obama in the November 2012 elections. "We`ve been told there`s another candidate ? who is running a rather close race with me tonight ? who is a better choice to choose because he can win… (but) what wins in America is bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone," Santorum told his supporters.

"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 to taking back this country," he said.

Asking conservative voters to rally behind him, he said: "We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the GOP establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November".

The Washington Post said Romney is now facing the same problem he faced in 2008. "His Iowa showing deadlocked late with former senator Rick Santorum highlighted the big problems that still dog Romney: suspicions about his avowed conservatism, struggles to connect with voters and an inability to rally more Republicans around his candidacy," the daily said.