WEST DES MOINES, Iowa-Hillary Hansen was struggling to push Rick Santorum signs into the frozen ground of Valley West High School an hour before the crowds showed up for Tuesday's precinct caucuses, and she had her message ready.
A 25-year-old Christian conservative, Hansen began leaning toward Santorum in the fall and then volunteered upon hearing his impassioned personal pro-life story at The Family Leader's Thanksgiving forum on Nov. 19 (see "Table talk," Nov. 21). With 1,774 precincts statewide, the Republican presidential candidates relied on caucus night volunteers like Hansen to carry each candidate's message to one last time.
Iowans rewarded Santorum and Mitt Romney-one, a sudden surging surprise, and the other, the steadiest campaign for the past year-with a photo finish, each claiming 25 percent of the record 122,255 votes cast. The two traded the lead throughout the evening, with usually only a few dozen votes separating them. Finally, at 2:34 a.m. CST, the Republican Party of Iowa announced that with all precincts reporting, Romney had won the Iowa caucus by a mere eight votes.
Earlier in the evening, Ron Paul had made it a three-way race at the top before he faded late and finished third with 21 percent. The close finish likely winnows the GOP field but sends a mixed message forward to the voters of this month's early primary states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
"Game on," Santorum told supporters in Des Moines late Tuesday night, as he thanked God and his wife for his strong showing in the Hawkeye State.
The Santorum enthusiasts in Iowa were barely noticed just a few weeks ago before then-frontrunner Newt Gingrich began slipping back to his eventual fourth place Iowa finish with 13 percent of the vote.
Santorum finally became the last candidate to catch a wave, gaining significant momentum from Iowa in his bid to become the main challenger to Romney. The former senator from Pennsylvania benefited from late endorsements and sudden media attention, while getting his traction late enough that rivals had no time to go negative to pull back his fast-growing support.
The Santorum surge decimated the campaign of Michele Bachmann, as Christian conservatives finally coalesced behind him, although not as cohesively as they did in 2008 with Mike Huckabee. Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa straw poll in Ames less than five months ago, faded to sixth place Tuesday night and single-digit support (5 percent). Despite her poor showing, the Minnesota congresswoman indicated Tuesday night that she would continue her campaign.
Perry, despite the largest advertising buy and a busy group of out-of-state volunteers, could not get a second look from Iowans and finished fifth with 10 percent of the vote. The Texas governor's numbers were on a slow upward trajectory as recently as 10 days before the vote, but Santorum's surge won out in the competition for Iowa's conservatives. Perry did have the most energetic speaker at the Clive caucus, a suburb of Des Moines, but she was from Georgia. Ginger Howard's enthusiastic pitch earned generous applause but the votes didn't follow. In a speech later in the evening, Perry said he'd take time for prayer and reflection as he reassesses his presidential bid.
Inside Valley West High, crowds streamed to several different meeting sites: two gymnasiums for West Des Moines residents and the auditorium for people from nearby Clive. Nearly 300 people filled the auditorium, sitting back politely to hear one representative of each campaign-including Robert Paul speaking for his father's candidacy-then voting on a small piece of light purple paper.
A team from within the room, again including a backer of each campaign, counted the vote, which was conducted by the Republican Party, not the state. The purple ballots were first sorted into piles on the platform within a huddle of counters and observers, then counted and re-counted.
In Clive, Kim Schmett spoke for Romney, pitching him as the candidate who would win in November. The former Massachusetts governor won Clive's precincts decisively. Down the hall, in a large West Des Moines precinct, Romney won more narrowly, while the rest largely followed the statewide order of finish.
Speaking on behalf of Gingrich at the Clive caucus, Steve Ogden asked for a show of hands of undecided voters. Surprisingly, with polls showing some 40 percent could still change their minds, only a smattering of those in attendance raised their hands. Later, Gingrich spoke to his followers in downtown Des Moines, congratulating Santorum and making his own pitch to voters as a Reagan conservative. The former speaker of the House vowed to fight on, closing his remarks by saying, "On to New Hampshire."
Romney drew large crowds in recent campaign stops in Des Moines' western suburbs, while Santorum outworked all rivals in the rural counties, particularly Rep. Steve King's conservative western district.
In his remarks to supporters late Tuesday night, Romney congratulated Santorum and then took aim at President Obama, saying, "The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I've ever seen in my life."
Traditionally, only three candidates leave Iowa with momentum. Finishing in fourth and fifth place respectively, Gingrich and Perry would have to defy that history to gain traction, perhaps in South Carolina. One or both candidates could try to play up their Southern ties, as Iowa's top two finishers are both from the Northeast. But Santorum will now make a strong bid for the evangelicals in South Carolina.
With two nationally televised debates scheduled in New Hampshire over the next week, the candidates remaining in the race will spend at least some time there. But Romney's expected strength in New Hampshire means the next heavily contested battle likely will take place in South Carolina.