Mitt Romney barely won the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night, gathering his winning eight votes--yes, eight votes--in a late-night panic from a single precinct whose tally went missing for a few hours. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania came in a close second--30,007 votes to Romney’s 30,015.
The caucuses thinned the field of Republican hopefuls, but only a bit, forcing Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to suspend her campaign and renewing the hopes of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who came in at 21 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry decided not to quit even though he only got 10 percent of the vote Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose hopes had spiked and then plummeted in recent weeks, said he was fighting on even though he gathered just 13 percent of the vote.
Most of all, the vote gave renewed energy to Santorum, who had languished in polls until recently. The race will also likely turn much uglier, with the outcome showing that attack ads funded by super PACs worked.
Santorum didn’t sound much like a winner early on Wednesday, although he was in a virtual dead heat with Romney with 25 percent of the caucus votes. “I’m a little bit behind the curve,” Santorum told CNN , noting that Romney has more money and has been running for president for the past six years.
A CNN/ORC survey showed that Santorum has made a few gains against Romney ahead of the next contest, the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary. Romney got 47 percent of the vote among likely New Hampshire primary voters, with Santorum polling 10 percent.
Negative ads hurt Gingrich badly--his poll numbers were cut in half in less than a month--and in response, he turned ugly, calling Romney a liar on the CBS Early Show. “[Romney] is not telling the American people the truth,” Gingrich said. “Here’s a Massachusetts moderate … [who] wants the rest of us to believe he’s somehow magically a conservative.”
Paul, who leans libertarian, spoke about his hopes to return to the gold standard and dismantle the Federal Reserve, to cheers from his supporters.
Perry looked ready to quit. “With the voters decision tonight in Iowa, I have decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race,” Perry told about 150 supporters on Tuesday night.
The returns show that Republicans, at least in Iowa, are still in search of a candidate whose conservative credentials they trust and who they also think can beat President Obama.
Romney played it cool early on Wednesday, making the rounds of the television breakfast shows to portray himself as focused and collected. “I am going to do my very best to communicate my vision for the country going forward, and I think conservatives are going to rally around that effort,” Romney told CNN. He conceded that the attacks would be “blistering” but said if he continues to focus on defeating Obama, he’ll win votes.
Romney may have picked up some support from former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, the senator from Arizona who is expected to endorse Romney later on Wednesday, according to a senior GOP official familiar with McCain’s schedule.
The Iowa vote turned out to be a cliff-hanger, thanks to some missing votes from a single precinct in Clinton County. County Chairwoman Edith Pfeffer went to bed in a room without a phone, having thought she delivered the vote count--51 for Romney, 33 for Santorum--safely. A computer glitch sent officials scrambling, and Pfeffer had to be awakened early in the morning to redeliver the count.
Romney came out with 25 percent of the vote despite his minimal efforts to campaign in Iowa. He had only five staffers in the state; he had 10 times more people in 2008, when his 25 percent was a clear defeat. While he may not appeal to hard-core conservatives, Romney is playing up his reputation as the GOP candidate who can win over the moderates. “I speak to Democrats every day who tell me ‘I am a Democrat [and] I am going to vote for you,' ” because they are disappointed in Obama, Romney told CNN.
The fractured vote may have weakened the future importance of the Iowa caucuses. Iowa’s caucuses have predicted the winning Republican candidate only twice in the past 40 years: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.
For his part, Obama heads to Cleveland on Wednesday, a Rust Belt city in a strategic swing state, to talk jobs. “This is the beginning of the 2012 campaign officially,” said Jerry Austin, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Cleveland. “So Obama is coming to a battleground state, and he’s going to the state’s No. 1 media market and the city where he has the largest support."