By DAVID ESPO and THOMAS BEAUMONT
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Vote by precious vote, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney battled improbably to a virtual draw early Wednesday in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, the opening round in the race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.
"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.
Neither a winner nor a loser, 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.
The winner isin line for bragging rights — and perhaps much more — as the Republican nominating campaign makes the turn to primaries in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, then South Carolina and Florida before the end of January. For some of the also-rans, history suggested the first event of the year might also be the last.
Whoever eventually finishes ahead, it appeared likely the winner's share of the vote would be a record low for GOP caucuses in the state. Former Sen. Bob Dole had 26.3 percent support in 1996, when he won.
The economy and the federal budget deficit were top issues, judged more important than abortion or health care, according to a survey of early caucus-goers.
About a third of those surveyed said they most wanted a candidate who could defeat Obama, and they tended to favor Romney. Paul held a broad advantage among the nearly one in four who called the selection of a true conservative their top priority, and he also made a strong showing among younger and first-time caucus-goers.
Supporters of the tea party made up about two-thirds of the electorate, and were nearly evenly split among Paul, Romney and Santorum.
The survey by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and television networks was based on interviews with more than 700 people arriving at 40 precinct caucuses across the state.
Returns from 808 of 1,774 precincts showed Santorum and Romney with 24 percent, Paul with 22 percent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 13 percent, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 10 percent, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 6 percent.
Obama was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Even so, his re-election campaign set up eight offices across Iowa, made hundreds of thousands of calls to voters and arranged a video conference with caucus night supporters.
"This time out is going to be in some ways more important than the first time,'' the president told Democrats across the state. "Change is never easy.''
The Iowa caucuses' outsized importance was underscored by the estimated $13 million in television advertising by the candidates and so-called super PACs as well as thousands of campaign stops designed to sway 100,000 or so voters.
Ironically, the weak economy that has made Obama appear vulnerable nationally was muted as an issue here. Despite areas of economic distress, the farm economy is strong. Iowa's unemployment in November was 5.7 percent, sixth lowest in the country and well below the national reading of 8.6 percent.
Despite its importance as the lead-off state, Iowa has a decidedly uneven record when it comes to predicting national winners. It sent Obama on his way in 2008, but eventual Republican nominee John McCain finished a distant fourth here to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Even before Tuesday night's results were known, this year's Republican hopefuls were turning their attention to the next contests. Romney's campaign purchased time to run television ads in Florida, where balloting is three weeks distant, while Perry put down money in South Carolina.
Aides said the Gingrich campaign had purchased a full-page newspaper ad in New Hampshire for Wednesday morning calling Romney a "Timid Massachusetts Moderate.''
Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008 despite a costly effort, initially campaigned cautiously this time around.
But he barnstormed extensively across the state in the race's final days in pursuit of a first-place finish, running as a conservative businessman with the skills to fix the economy and as the challenger with the best chance to defeat Obama.
Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann argued that Romney wasn't nearly conservative enough on the economy and social issues such as abortion. They vied for months to emerge as the alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Paul's libertarian-leaning views set him apart, and he hoped that might be enough to claim victory in a six-way race where no one broke away from the pack.
Unlike in a primary, in which voting occurs over hours, the 809 Iowa caucuses were meetings in which Republicans gathered for an evening of politics. Each presidential candidate was entitled to have a supporter deliver a speech on his or her behalf before straw ballots were taken.
Under party rules, caucus results have no control over the allocation of Iowa's 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The Associated Press uses the caucus outcome to calculate the number each candidate would win if his support remained unchanged in the pre-convention months.
The race in Iowa came to be defined by its unpredictability as the months rolled by and nationally televised candidate debates piled up.
Bachmann gained early momentum on the strength of a victory in a summertime straw poll and a feisty debate performance.
But she quickly faltered when Perry joined the race and overshadowed her as the 10-year governor of Texas with deep-pocketed supporters and an unbroken record of electoral success at home.
Perry's rise lasted only as long as a couple of debates — including one where he memorably was unable to recall the third of three federal agencies he wanted to abolish.
Next up was Herman Cain, a black former businessman who improbably shot to the top of the polls in a party that draws its support chiefly from white voters. He suspended his candidacy a few weeks later, after a woman said she and he had carried on a long-term extra-marital affair.
Gingrich rode the next surge in the polls, a remarkable comeback for a man whose campaign had imploded earlier in 2011 when most of his aides quit in frustration. But his rise lasted only until a super PAC that supports Romney began attacking him on television.
Enter Paul, and Santorum, both campaigning widely across the state and hoping to have the last say.
Democrats watched carefully in a state that has swung between the two parties in recent presidential elections.
It was Iowa that launched Obama on the way to the White House four years ago when he won a convincing victory in the caucuses.
The state's lead-off spot has been a fixture for decades. Democrats moved the caucuses up to early January in 1972, and Republicans followed suit four years later.
David Espo reported from Washington. (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)