SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Until this week, most news organizations described Mitt Romney as the presumed front-runner in the Republican presidential race. Now there are actual votes in by exactly eight of them, Mitt Romney has become the front-runner. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been with the Romney campaign all week and has this look back.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When Mitt Romney kicked off this past week with a blitzkrieg tour of Iowa, he had no way of knowing just how true this statement would be.
MITT ROMNEY: You guys in Dubuque, you're the best. Get out there and vote tomorrow. I need every vote.
SHAPIRO: Literally, he needed on every one. On election night, by the time he came out to talk to his supporters in the early hours of the morning, even Romney couldn't say whether this was a victory or concession speech.
ROMNEY: We don't know what the final vote tallies going to be, but congratulations to Rick Santorum. This has been a great victory for him and for his effort. He's worked very hard in Iowa.
SHAPIRO: A few hours later the final tally was in. By the smallest margin in history, the Iowa Republican Party declared Romney the winner. Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, says for Romney, the best thing about this win may have been the people who came in second and third. Sabato says Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are far easier rivals for Romney to defeat than Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich might have been.
LARRY SABATO: Gingrich may not have the money and organization, but he has the mouth power. And Rick Perry, of course, does have the money and can buy the organization; the combination potentially could have been lethal to Romney going forward. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are a completely different equation.
SHAPIRO: Later, there would be some reports of counting errors in Iowa but it seems they would not have changed the outcome. No matter how slim the margin, to Romney supporters...
FRANK BESSEY: A win's a win.
SHAPIRO: At a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Romney supporter Frank Bessey expressed confidence that this is a state where the former Massachusetts governor will win more solidly in Tuesday's primary.
BESSEY: He's been in New Hampshire a lot. He's expected to win here. Hopefully, we'll win here, and that gives him momentum going forward down South.
SHAPIRO: Romney would head down South before too long. But first he picked up an endorsement from the man who defeated him in New Hampshire four years ago.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Now, my friends, our message, our message to President Barack Obama is, you can run, but you can't hide from your record.
SHAPIRO: Arizona Senator John McCain stood by Romney's side at rallies through the rest of the week.
Romney is so confident of winning the New Hampshire primary that on Thursday, he flew down to a state where his victory is less certain.
ROMNEY: Thank you for this welcome. What is this? The Peanut Warehouse, huh?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: Boy, this is beautiful. It's great.
SHAPIRO: The Peanut Warehouse is a century-old building by the Waccamaw River in Conway, South Carolina. This group was more skeptical than the hometown crowd that Romney courted in New England.
MIKE PATTON: Central Casting Mitt, I call him.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Why do you call him Central Casting Mitt?
PATTON: Well, if you were going to have a TV show about a president, he'd be the guy you'd pick out of the lineup.
SHAPIRO: Real estate agent Mike Patton says Romney just isn't conservative enough for a lot of folks down here.
PATTON: I think Santorum's going to do better than everybody thinks.
SHAPIRO: Still, a CNN poll out yesterday shows Romney with a strong lead in South Carolina. Over the last month, he's up from 20 to 37 percent, while Rick Santorum has moved into second place with 19 percent. That will be enough to keep Romney in the lead as long as the anti-Romney vote continues to be split among several candidates.
Through all of these stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney let others in his group attack his Republican rivals while the candidate kept his sights on President Obama.
ROMNEY: I think he subscribes to something I call crony capitalism, which is a belief not in free markets and free people pursuing their dreams, but instead of a government that pays back favors to the people that took care of them.
SHAPIRO: Conservative voters have spent the last year flirting with alternatives to Romney. Even today, a group is meeting in Texas to explore possibilities. To be sure, Romney's week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina was not exactly a love fest. But sometimes in politics they don't have to love you - they just have to vote for you.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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