Iowa Spotlight Shines On Romney, Santorum And Paul

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were the big winners Tuesday night in the Iowa caucuses. They finished first, second and third respectively. Romney won by the narrowest of margins — eight votes.

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A virtual tie in Iowa. There was no decisive winner in yesterday's Republican caucuses. Instead, Mitt Romney finished ahead of Rick Santorum by just eight votes.

INSKEEP: It is the closest nominating contest in Republican history. Now for the record, Ron Paul came in third, Newt Gingrich fourth; and they were followed by Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what it all means.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Mitt Romney won Iowa by the narrowest of margins, but the star of the night was Rick Santorum. He had little money or organization and was forced to run a shoe leather campaign. He visited all 99 counties in Iowa. And in the last week, he vaulted from the bottom of the polls to the top - peaking at just the right moment.

At his victory party last night, he thanked his wife, God, and the voters of Iowa in that order.

RICK SANTORUM: By standing up and being bold and leading, leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step of taking back this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Almost 60 percent of caucusgoers identify themselves as born-again or evangelical. And this formidable bloc of Iowa voters provided the bulk of Santorum's support. Voters like Greg Holbert from Cedar Rapids.

GREG HOLBERT: My wife and I had a chance to listen to Senator Santorum here in late December. He brought to the table what I feel reflect the values that my wife and I both have of faith, family and freedom.

LIASSON: Mitt Romney ended up with about 25 percent of the vote, right about where he's been in the polls all along and exactly what he got in Iowa four years ago. But last night, he declared the results a great victory.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you Iowa, for the great send-off you're giving us and to others in this campaign. Look, this is a campaign night where America wins. We're going to change the White House and get America back on track.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Sixty-three percent of caucusgoers said Romney was the candidate best able to beat Barack Obama. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly said that 63 percent of caucusgoers said Mitt Romney was the candidate best able to beat Barack Obama. In fact, that 63 percent refers to the proportion of Romney supporters who said electability was most important to them.]

Electability was the argument that won over Chris Hastead, of Ames, Iowa.

CHRIS HASTEAD: I'm for Mitt Romney. I like everything that he says. I think he's got the best chance of beating President Obama next year.

LIASSON: Romney emerges from Iowa the same way he came in, as a vulnerable frontrunner. He has money and organization, and does well in hypothetical matchups against President Obama. But he still hasn't been able to win over the conservative base of his party.

Ron Paul placed third. He had the support of young voters, independents, and people going to the polls for the first time. Paul was the only candidate who expanded the Republican electorate by bringing in new voters. Many of them were attracted to his isolationist approach to foreign policy; out of the mainstream of Republican thought, but appealing to young people like Sarah Phillips.

SARAH PHILLIPS: I am really interested in his look at the wars and our current nation-building that we're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

LIASSON: Paul said he'd take his campaign to New Hampshire, where he hopes independent voters join his libertarian, grassroots movement.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: And some people say, well, you guys just do that because you believe in something, want to promote a cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PAUL: Certainly. But how is the best way to promote a cause? That is win elections. That's the way you promote it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LIASSON: Newt Gingrich came in fourth. He had been in first place briefly, but his support collapsed under a barrage of negative ads - most of them bought by a Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. Gingrich is furious about this. And last night, he promised to fight back against Romney.

NEWT GINGRICH: We are not going to go out and run nasty ads. We're not going to go out and run 30-second gotchas. We're not...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: But I do reserve the right to tell the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Gingrich says the debate with Romney begins this morning in New Hampshire, where he's taken out an ad in the Union Leader - the conservative New Hampshire newspaper that endorsed him.

But it's not clear whether Gingrich or Santorum can raise the kind of money needed to engage in a television ad war with Romney

Fifth place in Iowa went to Rick Perry, who has canceled plans to campaign in South Carolina today, and is flying home to Texas to reassess his candidacy. But Michele Bachmann, who finished a disappointing sixth, showed no signs of folding.

The turnout for the caucuses did not reflect the enthusiasm advantage that Republicans have enjoyed over Democrats for the last two years. Despite Republicans' determination to defeat Barack Obama, 122,000 Republicans turned out to vote yesterday. Not much more than the 119,000 that went to the caucuses four years ago.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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Correction Jan. 5, 2012

We incorrectly said that 63 percent of caucusgoers said Mitt Romney was the candidate best able to beat Barack Obama. In fact, that 63 percent refers to the proportion of Romney supporters who said electability was most important to them.

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