Narrow Iowa victory in hand, Mitt Romney is looking toward the next-up New Hampshire primary — essentially on his home turf — and sharper criticism from his Republican rivals, including chief challenger Rick Santorum.
The former Massachusetts governor was declared the winner of the leadoff presidential caucuses early Wednesday by just eight votes, ringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.
Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn said Romney had 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win.
Earlier, Romney added to his already-formidable national network by announcing the endorsement of John McCain, who twice won the New Hampshire primary and was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
In a sign of the acrimony ahead, Santorum said that was to be expected, and jabbed at his rival. "John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Mitt's view of the world," he said.
Even before his victory was announced, Romney looked past his GOP rivals and took aim at Obama. "The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I've ever seen in my life," he told supporters in Iowa's capital city.
"Game on," declared Santorum, jaw set, after easily outdistancing several other contenders to emerge as Romney's unvarnished conservative rival for the primaries yet ahead.
In all, more than 122,000 straw ballots were cast, a record for Iowa Republicans, and the outcome was a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.
Returns from all 1,774 precincts showed both Romney with 24.55 percent support and Santorum with 24.54 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul drew 21.5 percent of the votes.
The results are non-binding when it comes to picking delegates to the GOP convention next summer in Tampa. But an Associated Press analysis showed Romney would win 13 delegates and Santorum 12, if there were no changes in their support as the campaign wears on.
Paul ran third and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth, and both men vowed to carry the fight to New Hampshire's primary next week and beyond.
Not so Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth and told supporters he would return home to Texas to reassess his candidacy.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was a distant sixth, and her campaign appeared in disarray. She told reporters she would carry on — less than an hour after her campaign manager raised doubts in an Associated Press interview about whether she would stay in the race.