It was refreshing not to have the TV news anchors predict the outcome. For the candidates and their supporters, it was a nail-biter. In the end, it was a virtual tie. As of this writing, Mitt Romney trailed Rick Santorum, who rallied from the back of the pack to become the newest and perhaps most viable not-Romney candidate, by 13 votes.

Santorum, who spent a fraction of the money that his rivals did, operated on a shoestring campaign and demonstrated a work ethic that showed, even in the Twitter era, there is still something to retail politics. The final outcome may yet flip again, but this will rightfully be considered a tie with a margin that makes Florida in 2000 seem like a landslide.

Several thousand votes behind the leaders was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who seemed to lose momentum in the final week of the campaign. Perhaps his youthful supporters did not turn out as strongly as Paul had hoped. Maybe the coverage of his conspiratorial newsletters and loony foreign policy views dampened enthusiasm. In any event, his strength was largely based on independent voters, rather than Republican voters of the sort who will make up the bulk of the electorate from here on out.

Most relieved by Paul’s somewhat disappointing finish is the Iowa Republican Party, which dreaded the vilification that would have accompanied a Paul victory, perhaps even threatening the state’s hold on the first contest in the presidential primary process.

The isolationist segment on the party took it on the chin. With the two front-runners both forceful advocates for a strong national defense, talk of the Republican Party dabbling with isolationism should be muted.

The talking heads, most especially the pro-Obama spinners and the anti-Romney conservatives, tried to spin this as a loss for Romney. But that fact that he got fewer votes this time than in 2008 (in a smaller field, when he spent millions more and camped out for months in the state) is indicative of, well, of nothing. He survived multiple challenges and effectively tied in a state that was not essential to his success. He remains the front-runner and will have to be toppled by one of the existing candidates, who will need to overcome Romney’s considerable advantages in funding and organization.

That candidate best positioned — uniquely positioned, I would argue — to beat him is Santorum. Given the closeness of the race, he deferred coming out to talk to his supporters, and to the country at large, until after midnight. That was perhaps his only error in his Iowa effort.

When he came out, he seemed amazed and fully aware of the stakes, declaring, “Game on!” He gave his wife an emotional hug and recalled tearily his grandfather’s work as a miner. He seemed elated, as well he should be. This was a classy (complete with a C.S. Lewis quote) Santorum who rose to the occasion and demonstrated his blue-collar appeal and ability to weave social issues and his personal stories into a conservative economic agenda.

Santorum has sometimes has come across as strident or angry in debates (and prone to complaining about the lack of questions), but his miraculous showing in Iowa surely put a smile on his face and seemed to lighten his entire being. He now will be given all the attention he desires. He is going to have a huge challenge raising money, handling the media onslaught and explaining his economic agenda. But he is a knowledgable, experienced and dogged conservative who now has an opening to make a run for the nomination.

The big losers were Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Bachmann, in her home state, tumbled after the Ames straw poll and wound up 6,000 votes behind Perry. She lacked her usually feisty spark in her concession speech to supporters but gave no indication she was dropping out quite yet.

Perry, who spent a small fortune (more than $5 million), came in fifth and barely cracked double digits in his percentage of the vote. In a pained TV interview early in the night, he said he planned to go on to South Carolina, but in his concession speech he told the crowd he’d be going home to Texas to assess whether there is ”a path forward” for him. That sounds like he’s had enough and has figured out he really wasn’t cut out for the presidential race.

Newt Gingrich, the leader in Iowa for some time, finished far behind Paul in the race for the bronze. He can certainly go negative (as he has with a print ad ripping Romney in the New Hampshire newspaper the Union Leader) in order to try to regain his equilibrium. But he too faces daunting prospects in raising money and organizing in South Carolina. His speech was typically nasty, praising Santorum but then suggesting his other competitors were unpleasant. He groused again about negative ads. He nevertheless seemed absolutely determined to go on with plans to attack Ron Paul on foreign policy and Mitt Romney on everything else.

The pressure will increase on Bachmann and, to some extent, Gingrich to step aside and let Santorum get his one-on-one match-up against Romney. Will they do it? After all, the temptation will be strong to hang in there and wait for the tide to change once again.

Romney, for one, certainly hopes they do. The more the merrier, as far as he is concerned. That’s how he managed to bury most of the field and tie the newest, surging challenger in a state not ideally suited to the former Massachusetts governor.