Iowa’s razor-thin result indicates a fierce battle for conservatives is ahead

DES MOINES, Iowa--Iowa may not pick presidents. It may not even pick Republican presidential nominees. But Iowa most certainly resets the nomination contest, something its voters did again on Tuesday with the state's closest caucus vote in history.

With Mitt Romney's razor-thin, eight-vote victory over Rick Santorum, Iowa has created a new pecking order for the primaries to come in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and beyond. And, as is often the case, it will be a campaign for the soul of the party.

Romney leaves Iowa in a stronger position to win his party's 2012 nomination than any of his competitors, but weaker than he would have been with a clean win. He will now have to contend with an intense round of questions about the limits of his support inside the base of the Republican Party.

The contours of the reshaped contest began to become clear in the hours before the caucuses and immediately after while the votes were tallied. Santorum will take a two-pronged approach against Romney: He will sell himself as not only the more conservative candidate in the race, but also the one more likely to win over working-class Reagan Democrats with his blue-collar background.

"Game on," Santorum said as he took the stage at his victory night celebration in Johnston, Iowa.

"What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts, and a plan that includes everyone," he said. "A plan that includes everyone across the economic spectrum."

But as he moves on to New Hampshire--whose first-in-the-nation primary will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 10--as one of the top two candidates in the race right now, Santorum will have a huge target on his back. The Romney campaign is prepared to portray him as a Washington insider with no business experience--what Romney calls "the real economy."

In Iowa, Santorum rode a late wave of support, especially among evangelical Christians and the most conservative caucusgoers, to victory--but his road was made far easier because Romney chose not to lay a glove on him.

According to the entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for the television networks and the AP, 46 percent of caucus attendees made their decision in the last few days, and Santorum won 33 percent of those voters. He also received the backing of a third of the caucusgoers who identified themselves as "very conservative," and the support of 30 percent of Tea Party supporters.

Evangelical Christians showed up in similar strength as they did four years ago. Fifty-eight percent of the electorate said they were evangelical Christians, and 32 percent of them voted for Santorum.

New Hampshire, however, is home to a decidedly less socially conservative electorate, and Romney has an enormous advantage in the public opinion polls in his adopted home state.

Ron Paul showed huge growth from the support he received during his presidential run in 2008. He more than doubled his share of the vote and did so by bringing a lot of first-time caucusgoers into the process. Many of Paul's voters identified themselves as independents, which may prove problematic for the libertarian-leaning congressman as the nomination calendar moves ahead to contests that are open only to Republican voters.

Romney put together his coalition in part by winning 38 percent of Iowa's non-evangelical voters, as well as the bulk of those Republicans who placed the presumed ability to defeat President Barack Obama in a general election as the most important trait for their candidate.

Despite Newt Gingrich's distant fourth-place showing, the former House speaker made it clear that he intends to stay in the race and will start making sharper contrasts with Mitt Romney. In his speech before his supporters on Tuesday night, Gingrich congratulated Paul and Santorum for their performances at the caucuses, but he left Romney unmentioned. He is apparently still smarting from the barrage of attack ads from Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC that wiped him out of contention in Iowa.

Gingrich said "a great debate" will now take place within the Republican Party before they can take that debate to President Obama.

And the field may be one person smaller when the candidates convene Saturday for the ABC News/Yahoo News debate in New Hampshire.

"I've decided to return to Texas assess the results of tonight's caucus determine if there is a path forward for myself in this race," Rick Perry told his supporters.

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