Moderate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney just barely edged out surging conservative former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in the Iowa Republican caucuses. The two candidates from different wings of the party were locked in a near-tie: each had 24.5 percent. Only 8 votes separated the two.
The libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas to finish third, with 21.5 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is in fourth with 13.3 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is fifth with 10.3 percent. Rep. Michele Bachmann is sixth with 5.1 percent.
The close finish for the top two spots means the Republican nomination race leaves Iowa with an air of indecision. Next up is the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, where Mr. Romney is expected to win easily. But his status as a favorite son there could diminish the meaning of such a victory.
The third race, the South Carolina primary, on Jan. 21 could prove crucial. It is the first contest in the South, and as such, does not favor Romney, a northerner. And some of the lower-tier candidates out of Iowa – such as Governor Perry and Congresswoman Bachmann of Minnesota – have announced they are skipping New Hampshire and heading straight to South Carolina.
As long as the field remains large and divided, that helps Romney. He is one of the only candidates in the race with the money and organization to last through a long slog through weeks of primaries and caucuses. But if he cannot build on his base of support, seemingly stuck in the mid-20s, that raises serious questions about how he gets to the nomination.
Mr. Santorum, in contrast, has stunning momentum. Just a month ago, he was polling below 5 percent among Iowa Republicans. But one by one, as other conservatives rose and were knocked down by gaffes and the intense focus on their records, Santorum seems to have timed his surge perfectly. The question for him is whether he can raise money and build an organization quickly enough to run a national campaign.