Further back in the pack were three candidates who had been considered leading contenders at earlier points in the race: former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), with 13 percent of the vote, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with 10 percent. Putting in a particularly dismal showing was Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), with 5 percent.
Earlier in the day, Perry had vowed to continue on to South Carolina and take the fight to Romney. But on Tuesday night, the governor said he planned to go home to Texas instead and “determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race.”
It is more difficult to see such a path for Bachmann, given her last-place finish and the fact that her campaign strategy had been premised on a strong launch in Iowa, the state where she was born and where she won the GOP straw poll in Ames in August.
But her campaign manager, Keith Nahigian, said Bachmann is going ahead “full steam.”
Gingrich, meanwhile, sounded a note of determination. “There will be a great debate in the Republican Party before we are prepared to have a great debate with Barack Obama,” he said as the final results were coming in.
Though Santorum’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather approach to campaigning paid off in Iowa, the question now is how far he can go from here, given his lack of resources and the need to ramp up a national organization.
In his victory speech, Santorum alluded to concerns that he was not up to a contest with Romney. “Let me tell you what wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone,” Santorum said.
Santorum also will come under the kind of scrutiny and criticism that he was spared when the other contenders did not view him as a threat.
Paul, for instance, has already branded Santorum “very liberal,” and Perry has described the former senator as “addicted to earmarks.”
For his part, Santorum has said Paul is “disgusting,” and he blamed Paul’s campaign for automated phone calls in which voters were told that the vehemently antiabortion Santorum was, instead, more supportive of abortion rights.
Though Romney’s Iowa vote percentage was almost precisely what he got in 2008, the fragmentation of the field meant that he was spared the kind of defeat he suffered four years ago. This time, he had made a far more modest effort in the state. As he noted Tuesday night, his Iowa staff of five was less than one-tenth the size of his operation in 2008.
And both Paul, a libertarian whose views are out of line with those of most Republicans, and Santorum, an underfinanced social conservative, will struggle to prevail against Romney in the long run.