DES MOINES, IOWA ( ABC NEWS.com ) Mitt Romney won the first presidential preference contest of 2012 by a mere eight votes Tuesday, narrowly edging out a surging Rick Santorum in the Iowa Caucuses.
The two men -- neither of whom was expected as recently as a month ago to win -- ran neck and neck and finished in a virtual tie. The second place finish capped a remarkable rise in popularity for Santorum, who had focused his entire campaign and shoestring budget on Iowa.
Romney finished second in Iowa in 2008, but had focused his 2012 campaign on other early primary and caucus states. In this cycle he received exactly six votes less than he did in 2008.
In third place was Rep. Ron Paul, the Libertarian leaning Texan on his third and most inspired run for the presidency.
Read analysis of the Iowa results and whether Santorum can carry his momentum to other states.
There were some reporting irregularities from local party committees that dragged the election outcome into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Both candidates gave speeches earlier in the night that sounded victorious. ABC News projected that 123,000 people voted in the Iowa contest, the largest turnout for a Republican caucus. Romney got 30,015 votes and Santorum received 30,007.
Santorum was boosted by evangelical Christians, an influential group in the state, and voters who made their decision in just the last few days. A Des Moines Register poll Saturday found that as many as four in 10 Republican voters in Iowa were still undecided.
While Santorum's showing is an upset of sorts, Romney's narrow victory places the former Massachusetts governor in a good position to win New Hampshire's primary next week before the candidates face off in a more competitive primary in South Carolina. He's also expected to get the endorsement of Sen. John McCain, the last Republican nominee for president.
Romney gets bragging rights to the victory, but no delegates are awarded as a result of the Iowa caucus.
Read more about the upcoming primary contests.
Paul, in third place, held on to his reliable bloc of enthusiastic supporters and ended up with 21 percent of the vote. The rest of the candidates fell into a lower tier, with Newt Gingrich winning 13 percent, Rick Perry getting 10 percent and Michele Bachmann seeing 5 percent.
In a late-night speech that stressed his blue-collar roots, Santorum noted the "rather close race" he's in with Romney, and as he argued why he's a better candidate, a supporter shouted out, "RomneyCare," referring to the ex-governor's health care record in Massachusetts that has haunted him.
"What did you say? Oh, RomneyCare, OK. I just didn't hear you," Santorum said. "What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone."
Romney, in his speech just moments later, congratulated Santorum and Paul but spoke almost entirely about President Obama. Citing a quote Obama made three years ago -- that if the economy isn't better, he might only last one term -- Romney told cheering supporters that "we are here to collect."
The results from Iowa appeared to claim at least one casualty: Perry announced late in the night that he would go home because of his poor showing, appearing to surprise members of his staff.
"I've decided to return to Texas to assess the results of tonight's caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race," he told his supporters. Perry's campaign said he made the decision an hour before he took the stage.
And Bachmann's campaign manager told the AP that "it's hard to tell" whether the congresswoman will keep campaigning. Both Perry and Bachmann planned on skipping the New Hampshire primary to focus solely on South Carolina.
Gingrich, who finished fourth, praised Santorum for running a positive campaign but was openly bitter toward Romney, who has benefited as a Super PAC spent millions of dollars to wipe out Gingrich's onetime lead.
"He waged a great, positive campaign," Gingrich said of Santorum in his speech to supporters. "I wish I could say that for all the candidates