Iowa’s caucus system often provides surprises and delivered another in spades Tuesday with a close Republican primary contest that wasn’t decided until the last votes were counted in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Romney’s win sends him to next week’s New Hampshire primary as the candidate to beat but Santroum’s emergence as the choice for GOP conservatives sets up a possible crucial showdown in South Carolina later this month.
“Santorum’s showing reshapes the race,” GOP political activist Lawrence Akins told Capitol Hill Blue. “He becomes the latest alternative to Romney.”
Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished third, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich fourth, Texas Gov. Rick Perry fifth, Minnesota Congressman Michelle Bachmann sixth amd former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman seventh with just one percent of the vote.
Romney and Santorum each finished with 25 percent of the vote and 11 delegates. Santorum’s 30,007 votes fell just eight votes short of Romney’s. Paul, with 21 percent and 26,217 votes, nabbed three delegates. Gingrich was far back with 16,251 votes and 13 percent and Perry with 12,604 votes and 10 percent.
A bitter Gingrich praised Santorum and promised to stay in the race. Perry told supporters he would head back to Texas today to “assess” his campaign. He is expected to pull out.
Bachmann, whose 6,073 votes gave her just five percent, is also claiming she will stay in the race.
A month ago, polls showed the race belonging to Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Romney, who lost Iowa to Mike Huckabee in 2008, wasn’t expected to win but stormed the state over the final week.
Critics say Romney didn’t pick up any strength over his 2008 place finish where he also collected 25 percent but with more candidates in the race this year the outcome was more split.
Former Congressman and MSNBC talk show host Chuck Scarborough dismissed the critics.
“A win is a win is a win,” Scarborough said Wednesday morning. “Mitt Romney won Iowa.”
Exit polls show evangelicals — a driving force in Iowa GOP politics but not a deciding factor on the national scale — delivered the surge for Santorum. Many defected from Paul, whose fade to third clearly disappointed his enthusiastic followers although his campaign tried to spin the third place as a win. They noted that 2008′s eventual nominee John McCain also finished third in Iowa.
But other political watchers wonder if Santorum might not be this season’s McCain.
“South Carolina will determine that,” Akins said.