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US election race: Romney wins narrow victory in Iowa

McCain to endorse Romney, after election win in Iowa, first state to vote in the 2012 presidential caucus and primary season.

DES MOINES – Mitt Romney has defeated Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses by eight votes, clinching what appears to be the closest-ever margin of victory in a Republican presidential contest, the state Re­publican Party said early Wed­nesday, according to CNN.

Ron Paul finished a close third, according to the state GOP. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who placed fifth, said late Tuesday that he would return to his home state to consider whether his campaign would continue.

Romney, a former Massa­chusetts governor, had 30,015 votes. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and an upstart challenger who just weeks ago polled in the single digits, had 30,007, the state GOP said. Each had roughly 25% of the vote in Iowa, the first state to vote in the 2012 presidential caucus and primary season.

The closest previous margin of victory in a GOP presidential contest was 257 in 1936, when Alf Landon won the 1936 South Dakota primary. In 2008, Barack Obama earned the closest-ever margin in a U.S. presidential contest, defeating Hillary Clinton by seven votes in the Guam caucus.

Speaking to supporters in Des Moines early Wednesday, before final results were known, Romney framed the Iowa contest as a “great victory” for him, Santorum and Paul. “All three of us will be campaigning very hard to restore the heart and soul of this nation,” Romney said. The focus of the race now shifts to New Hampshire, which holds its primary election next Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain planned to travel to New Hampshire to endorse Romney, a senior Republican source close to the senator said. McCain beat Romney to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. The next state to vote after New Hampshire will be South Carolina, where the Republican primary is scheduled to happen on January 21.

Santorum told CNN early Wednesday – before the final tally was announced – that he would turn his attention to New Hampshire, where Romney, who governed neighboring Massa­chusetts, has had a large lead in polls. “We’re going to be on to New Hampshire. We’re going to work hard and compete there,” Santorum said. “I’m a little bit behind the curve in the sense that Gov. Romney has spent a lot of money and a lot of time up there, and has been running for six years. But we feel like we can go up there and compete.”

Of the 25 pledged delegates at stake in Iowa, CNN estimates Romney, Santorum and Paul each won seven, with Gingrich and Perry winning two. The delegate number needed to clinch the nomination is 1,144.

The Iowa results typically are important because they give the top finishers the fuel they need, including fundraising, to keep their campaigns going. With Romney considered the runaway favorite in New Hampshire, some other candidates who continue past Iowa are expected to focus more on South Carolina, hoping to make a stand there. Several candidates – Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann – positioned themselves as conservative alternatives to Romney. As Gingrich’s popularity in Iowa fell amid withering attack ads in December, Santorum rose just in time for the caucuses.

Obama, who is not expected to face a major challenge for the Democratic nomination, spoke to caucus-goers in an interactive video-teleconference to Democratic caucus sites Tuesday night. He touted the end of the war in Iraq, health care reform and making college more affordable as some of his achievements – a similar message to the “promises” campaign video rolled out this week.

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