Texas Gov. Rick Perry waits to speak with voters attending the West Des Moines… (Jonathan Gibby / Getty Images )
Reporting from Des Moines — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were in a tight, three-way race in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, based on partial returns in the opening vote of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.
The results were a clear setback for a pair of candidates once expected to contend for the nomination — Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Michele Bachmann, who won a high-profile Iowa straw poll last August, was a distant sixth and faces elimination from the race.
Romney, the runner-up in Iowa during his first presidential try four years ago, was splitting with Santorum the votes of those who identified themselves as Republicans in a survey of hundreds of caucus-goers as they entered voting sites across the state.
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Paul was benefiting from strong support from independents and those under 30, many of them first-time caucus-goers. Santorum drew support from social conservatives, who cast about three in five votes, virtually the same share as in 2008, when Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian favorite, was the Iowa winner.
This time, however, religious conservatives splintered. Their inability to coalesce behind a single contender made it possible for Romney to contend for a victory with roughly the same share of the vote he got in 2008.
Paul, meantime, roughly doubled his share of the vote from last time. The iconoclastic congressman from the Houston area, who has been running off and on for president for a quarter-century, was never far from the lead in Iowa.
Despite what could well be the best night of his political career, the 76-year-old candidate remains a distinct longshot for the GOP nomination.
Paul's isolationism and call for the return of U.S. military forces from overseas deployments has clear appeal to moderates and younger voters. But his dismissal of a threat from Iran's nuclear program poses a potentially insurmountable hurdle for many, if not most, Republican primary voters, who favor a strong U.S. defense posture.
Self-described Independents — deprived of a contest on the Democratic side — turned out in significantly higher numbers than in 2008. They made up about one-fourth of the vote, according to network entrance polling, compared with 13% four years ago.
Nearly half of the independents supported Paul. The popularity of his libertarian views among younger voters — he speaks favorably of legalizing drugs — was reflected in the support of nearly half of voters aged 17-29, who made up 15% of the caucus electorate, up from 11% in 2008.
For Santorum, a longshot who rode a late surge of support after Perry and Gingrich fell from favor among conservative voters, the top-tier finish was a vindication of his old-school approach to the first campaign of the Twitter age. Making a virtue out of his financially pinched candidacy, Santorum followed the classic Iowa playbook — spending months visiting all 99 counties.
The former Pennsylvania senator held more than 370 town hall-style question-and-answer sessions with voters, from the one that attracted a single voter to a number that drew hundreds of supporters in the closing days of the campaign. Helped by his antiabortion views, he gained endorsements from several prominent social conservatives, including Bob Vander Plaats, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate as well as a prominent pastor and a talk-show host in western Iowa, the most conservative part of the state.
Iowa's role, historically, has been to winnow the field. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of neighboring Minnesota, abandoned his presidential chase after a poor finish in the Ames Straw Poll last August. Bachmann, who won the 2007, became the first straw poll victor to finish lower than second in the caucuses, and the Minnesota congresswoman, out of money and short on hope, may find it difficult to continue.
Gingrich on Tuesday blamed a deluge of ads from a so-called "super PAC" run by associates of Mitt Romney for his expected poor showing. Asked twice in a CBS interview if he'd call Romney a "liar" for refusing to disavow the group's ads, Gingrich agreed.
"This is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It's baloney," Gingrich said. "He's not telling the American people the truth."
Whether Iowa will propel a winner to the nomination, as it has sometimes done in the past, hung on the counting of the final batches of returns from the 1,774 caucus sites.
Romney, strongly favored in next week's New Hampshire primary, had played a coy game with Iowa voters, waiting until the last six weeks to begin an all-out push. He made fewer trips to the state than his main rivals, counting on a stealth effort by his campaign to maintain the support that brought him a second-place finish in Iowa in 2008.
If Romney were to score back-to-back wins in the first two contests — something no non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has ever accomplished — he'd become a heavy favorite to gain the nomination.
But as returns continued to trickle in, the optimism of Romney's campaign advisers, who had raised expectations for a victory after public polls showed the former Massachusetts governor in the lead, was being severely tested. One internal network projection of the final result estimated that slightly more than one percent would separate the first- and third-place finishers.
Unlike some other contests, however, elections very seldom end in ties. And as politicians like to say, a win is a win, no matter how slim.
Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report from Manchester, N.H.