After Iowa Caucuses, Santorum Declares 'Game On'

In recent weeks a lot of polls and pundits said the Iowa caucuses might be too close to call. But nobody imagined just how close things would turn out Tuesday night in the first voting of the 2012 presidential nominating season. Mitt Romney was declared the winner by just eight votes. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum came in second.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Plenty of pundits said the Iowa caucuses were too close to call, but nobody quite expected this. In the first voting of the 2012 campaign season, the counting continued well after midnight, until Republicans finally declared Mitt Romney the winner in Iowa. You could count his margin of victory on your fingers: eight votes.

NPR's Don Gonyea spent the evening watching and waiting with supporters of Rick Santorum, the second-place finisher, in suburban Des Moines.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: As caucusing got underway last night, Rick Santorum made the rounds of several precincts.

RICK SANTORUM: How are you? Rick Santorum. Nice to see you. Thank you.

GONYEA: This is precinct number three in the city of Johnston, one of the biggest caucus sites in the state. Santorum stood in the front of the middle school cafeteria and made one last pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: And I hope tonight, as you make this tough decision - and I know it will be - that you'd give us an opportunity in Iowa to speak. Be bold. Lead.

GONYEA: The Santorum campaign set up shop for a victory party at a hotel just over a mile away. By 9 PM, early results were trickling in, and it already looked like it would be a good night for Santorum, who had languished at or near last place in Iowa for many months.

Forty-nine-year-old investment analyst Barb Cappaert was there with her husband and son.

BARB CAPPAERT: A month ago, we thought if he can get over 10 percent, he's on the radar. And then the last week, if he can get over 15. Now, if we really are pulling and getting in over 20 percent, that's big. And that's great to see the momentum and people finally focusing on the candidates and seeing what they've wanted to see.

GONYEA: Over the next couple of hours, TVs in the ballroom flashed updated tallies on what started out as a three-way race - Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul each with 24 percent. Slowly, Paul's numbers dropped. For the rest of the night, it was Romney up, then Santorum, then Romney, then Santorum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're up by 113.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: As 11 PM approached, Santorum was ahead by just a tiny amount. Joel Jollymore was glued to the Fox News broadcast.

JOEL JOLLYMORE: Three percent left to report, man. This is awesome. And it's a squeaker.

GONYEA: The evangelical and conservative Christian vote had long been fragmented among several candidates in Iowa. But polls show that vote has recently begun to coalesce behind Santorum. The votes continued to come in last night. The crowd hung in there. The result became almost an afterthought for many. Finally, a campaign aide explained where the candidate was. It was a game of chicken of sorts.

UNDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know what's going on over at Mitt's headquarters. They're sitting there going: Rick needs to call me. Rick's upstairs going: Mitt needs to call me. Can somebody just buzz Mitt and say, come on out, get some love so that we can bring the winner down here and get the job done?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: Finally, at 11:15, very late by Iowa caucus standards, Santorum entered the room with his family. He did everything but declare victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: Game on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: He delivered a speech that was heavy in biographical details, likely a recognition that for many in the country, this might be their first introduction to him. He thanked those who voted for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: They share our values about faith and family. They understand that when the family breaks down, the economy struggles.

GONYEA: The next stop in the process is New Hampshire, which votes next Tuesday. It's a Romney stronghold and a place with far fewer evangelical voters. Last night, Santorum dismissed the premise that Mitt Romney is the Republican most able to beat President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: 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. It's a resonate - it will resonate, I know, in New Hampshire.

GONYEA: Santorum closed with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: And with your help and God's grace, we'll have another fun night a week from now. God bless you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: The coming week will be unlike any Santorum had in Iowa, where he was struggling just to get noticed. He'll get plenty of attention and much more scrutiny than he's seen so far.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.

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