COLUMBIA, S.C. - It looks now as if Rick Santorum actually won the Iowa Republican caucuses earlier this month, as Mitt Romney’s narrow lead evaporated while state GOP officials were certifying the vote count.
Instead of winning by eight votes, “Landslide” Mitt Romney ended up trailing Santorum by 34 votes, the Des Moines Register reported Thursday. But that tally is not the final word and there probably won’t be a final word – because votes from eight Iowa precincts are missing “and will never be recovered and certified,” the newspaper said.
Romney was declared the winner in international news coverage and the result, along with winning the New Hampshire primary a week after the Jan. 3 caucuses, boosted his momentum toward the nomination. Santorum also received a bump from his narrow finish.
In a statement Thursday morning, Romney declared Iowa a “virtual tie.” He added, “I would like to thank the Iowa Republican Party for their careful attention to the caucus process, and we once again recognize Rick Santorum for his strong performance in the state.”
Santorum has been using the possibility that he actually won Iowa as a talking point on the stump here in South Carolina, where he is battling former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the lion’s share of the conservative vote in Saturday’s GOP primary in hopes of slowing Romney.
Hogan Gidley, a senior Santorum adviser, said the latest Iowa results means a Romney victory is no longer inevitable, as both Romney and the media "have been touting."
"Conservatives can now see and believe they don't have to settle for Romney," Gidley said in a statement. "This latest defeat of Governor Romney in Iowa is just the beginning, and Rick Santorum is committed to continuing the fight as the clear, consistent conservative voice in this race.”
It is unclear what effect the news might have on the ever-delecate expectations game. Romney's biggest strength has been the perception that he is the most electable candidate; in other words, he's been winning because he's been winning. If he is seen as no longer 2-0 in nominating contests, will Republican voters care?
Iowa GOP officials are scheduled to officially announce the results at 9:15 a.m. EST, and the campaigns will be able to inspect the returns.