THE first test in the race for a Republican presidential nod was won by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, but only by the tightest of margins.
For all the money and effort he poured into the Iowa campaign, the 64-year-old eked out a victory of just eight votes over closest rival Rick Santorum, a darling of the party’s religious right.
But it was enough to keep Mr Romney’s position as a frontrunner on track as he heads to New Hampshire for next week’s primary election – a vote that should bend more towards his strain of moderate conservatism.
The Iowa vote also resulted in a narrowing of candidates as Tea Party favourite Michele Bachmann dropped out, having polled last amongst those seriously challenging for the state.
Meanwhile, Texas governor Rick Perry returned home to lick his wounds following a disappointing showing. It prompted talk that he too was to step down as a candidate, although in a tweet to supporters, Mr Perry appeared to deny the claim.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the Iowa vote had it as a three-horse race between Mr Romney, Mr Santorum and the libertarian-leaning candidate Ron Paul.
At one point during the count, all three were on 24 per cent.
But when town halls had finally emptied, it transpired that Mr Romney had won by a sliver – receiving the support of 30,015 Iowan Republicans (24.6 per cent) compared to Mr Santorum’s 30,007 (24.5 per cent). Mr Paul slipped to 21.4 per cent.
The result has given unexpected life to Mr Santorum’s campaign. The social conservative – who runs on a pro-life, anti-gay marriage platform – had failed to gain much attention prior to the Iowa hustings.
But he has emerged as the latest “anyone but Romney” candidate as those on the evangelical wing of the party seek a suitable right-wing contender.
The challenge for Mr Santorum is not to follow the likes of Ms Bachmann and Mr Perry in a slide down the polls.
Speaking yesterday, he said: “We are off to New Hampshire because the message I shared with you tonight is not an Iowa message or an Iowa and South Carolina message. It is a message that will resonate across this land.”
But he will now face the might of the Romney campaign. In the run up to Iowa, the 64-year-old crushed the threat of a resurgent Newt Gingrich through a series of negative campaign advertisements. The former House speaker was perhaps the biggest loser, polling fourth on 13.3 per cent having been vying for the top spot just weeks earlier.
Mr Gingrich bitterly attacked Mr Romney, accusing him of being bankrolled by “millionaire friends” and carrying out a “relentlessly negative campaign of falsehoods”.
Mr Gingrich indicated he would now be turning his guns on the perceived frontrunner.
“I expect it will be a very lively campaign,” he told reporters.
And with the rise of Mr Santorum, Mr Romney could now be forced to address a perceived weak spot – his past record on abortion and gay rights.
Aside from the Iowa win, the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign received a further boost yesterday in the shape of an endorsement from Senator John McCain. The former presidential challenger won the New Hampshire primary on the way to getting the Republican nomination in 2008.
A strong showing in the state next week would put Mr Romney in a commanding position in the race this time around.
But if he fails to win by any margin, it could reaffirm the belief that he is an unpopular frontrunner who holds the position despite misgivings from his own party.
Republican pollster Dan Judy said: “If he does well in New Hampshire he could then coast to the nomination. But if it is close, then it could signal trouble for Mr Romney.
“And New Hampshire voters are famously fickle when it comes to supporting the frontrunner.”