DES MOINES, Iowa-GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had to wait more than two weeks to learn he won Iowa's photo finish-with an asterisk.
The Republican Party of Iowa certified the results of the Jan. 3 caucus, finally giving Santorum a slight 34-vote edge over Mitt Romney, but admitting that unknowns will remain unsolved and uncounted in eight of the 1,774 precincts following the historic "split decision." The final tally was 29,839 for Santorum to 29,805 for Romney.
The Santorum campaign seized on the results Thursday in an attempt to reclaim the banner of the conservative alternative to Romney, while insisting the Iowa finish damages the "inevitability" of the Romney nomination. Santorum lost momentum in New Hampshire and is hoping to reclaim some of that impetus Saturday in South Carolina's first in the South primary. While the news from Iowa can only help Santorum, the most recent polls from the Palmetto State have shown Newt Gingrich is putting up a stout challenge to the frontrunner, Romney, even moving ahead of him within the margin of error 33 to 31 percent in the latest Rasmussen poll. (See "Shifting support," by Jamie Dean.)
Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative leader in Iowa, notes that Romney was given credit for a win with an eight-vote uncertified margin for two weeks, but that Santorum should get the credit for a hard-fought victory now. The two candidates battled to an inconclusive finish on caucus night after they had exchanged the lead throughout the evening. In the wee hours of the morning, state party leaders announced an eight-vote margin that stood for two weeks.
Vander Plaats credited the Iowa state GOP for getting the news of Santorum's victory out ahead of the next key contest in South Carolina, and hailed the news that Rick Perry has decided to exit the race. Calling Perry's decision statesmanlike, Vander Plaats believes it is one more step toward unifying conservatives against Romney. Following South Carolina, he said, Santorum and Gingrich should work together to finally achieve that united front.
"Romney does not want to go one-on-one with anybody," Vander Plaats said. "That's a real conversation that [Gingrich and Santorum] need to have."
Santorum struggled in last place for months before surging in Iowa in the final few weeks on the strength of late endorsements in a Republican race that has featured dizzying falls for frontrunners.
Before the revised results from Iowa, Romney seemed on the verge of a historic trifecta in winning the first three contests, which would make his nomination seem inevitable. The news from Iowa slightly reduces that narrative just as South Carolinians are poised to make their decision.