What a night -- and early morning -- it has been here in Iowa, where Mitt Romney squeaked out an eight vote caucus victory (out of 122,255 ballots cast) and Rick Santorum rocked the GOP presidential race by earning a virtual first place tie. Overall Republican turnout narrowly exceeded 2008 levels, at least one campaign appears to be folding up shop, and the stage is set for a bruising battle ahead. Let's examine each candidate's performance:
Rick Santorum (30,007): Regardless of the specific final tally, Santorum is tonight's winner. Just days ago, he was polling in the single digits, and was written off by almost everyone. Undeterred, his skeleton campaign steadily pushed ahead, visiting all 99 Iowa counties and conducting over 300 townhall meetings. This relentless retail campaigning set the table for a last-minute surge as other candidates slipped in the polls. The former Pennsylvania Senator rode a blue collar economic message and staunch social conservatism to an improbable victory. Santorum gave a personal, moving, off-the-cuff victory speech to elated supporters, and will spend six of the next seven days in New Hampshire. "Game on," he said when he took the stage earlier. Indeed. Will Rick Santorum be the last not-Romney standing after all? Will his emphasis on social issues resonate with voters in an economy-centric cycle? Can he replicate his Iowa finish in states where he hasn't essentially lived for months?
Mitt Romney (30,015): He'll certainly take the narrow win, but his campaign would obviously have preferred a clearer victory. Romney used his victory speech to congratulate the other leading candidates, remind voters that, unlike in 2008, he operated with a shoestring Iowa staff this cycle (incredibly earning almost precisely the same number of votes as last time), and turn his fire on President Obama. It amounted to an unremarkable stump speech, perhaps by design. Santorum's address was memorable; Romney's was workmanlike and on-message, a reinforcement that Romney is in this race for the long haul and is unfazed by its sundry twists and turns. As the race shifts to New Hampshire, Romney will have to compete against his own lofty expectations in that state, where he currently holds a commanding lead. To that end, Team Romney is expected to roll out John McCain's endorsement later today. That may not fire up too many conservatives nationally, but McCain is immensely popular among New Hampshire Republicans, so now is as good a time as any to unveil his blessing. Here's a paradox to consider: Romney could win Iowa and New Hampshire, but still not attain the air of inevitability that achievement might typically confer.
Ron Paul (26,219): A third place finish is respectable, but won't make the splash his supporters hungered for. Iowa was likely Paul's best shot at pulling off a significant win, and that opportunity has passed him by. During Paul's post-caucus speech, a thought occurred to me: Could the self-stylized liberty warrior's torch soon be passed to his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who stood by his father's side? The Congressman is heading into retirement just as Rand's political career is taking off. Perhaps the Kentuckian will re-package his father's ideas and offer more sober, palatable vessel on a national stage at some point down the road.
Newt Gingrich (16.251): If his speech tonight was any indication, Newt is an embittered candidate who's ready to unleash some pent-up frustration on Mitt Romney in the coming weeks. Gingrich may not fulfill his grand prediction of becoming the party's nominee, but one gets the feeling he's preparing to do everything he can to deny Romney that achievement. After complaining loudly about attacks from a Romney-affiliated Super PAC, Newt has shed his 'good cop' persona and is ready to make some hay. Get your popcorn ready for Saturday's tilt in Manchester.
Rick Perry (12,604): Having spent a tremendous amount of time and money in Iowa, these final results were demoralizing for the Texas governor's team. The momentum he began to rebuild in December seemed to tranfer over to Santorum, leaving Perry at a dead end. He's announced his intention to "reassess" his campaign in Texas, and has reportedly scrapped his upcoming schedule in South Carolina. Perry's missteps and a handful of disastrous debate performances appear to have done him in -- a dramatic turn of events for a man who was once considered by many to be a very promising leading candidate. Even as he leaves the race, the state he governs remains a model for reversing America's economic woes: Low taxes, predictable regulation, balanced budgets, and a competitive tort climate.
Michele Bachmann (6.073): Her poor showing effectively ends her campaign, even if she says she's fighting on through at least South Carolina. If she couldn't place respectably in her own backyard, it's over. To put a finer point on it, she barely outperformed her Ames Straw Poll vote total. There were rumors circulating that she might drop out following her sixth-place finish, but that never came to fruition. If she sticks around for awhile, that may offer a marginal assist to Mitt Romney, but I'm not convinced she'll command many votes at all in any of the upcoming states.
Jon Hunstman (745): Shockingly, Hunstman's anti-Iowa insults didn't win him many fans here. He barely registered a blip in the balloting.
The big take-aways: Mitt Romney pulls out the technical win by a hair, but the big story is Rick Santorum. The other Rick is on his way out, and Michele Bachmann can't be too far behind. One state down, forty-nine to go. Welcome to 2012.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography