Dead heat? Romney, Santorum seesaw in Iowa vote

Mary Keys of Cedar Falls, Iowa folds Newt Gingrich shirts Tuesday at the Black Hawk County Republican caucus site at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — 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.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul ran third.

Returns from 99 percent of the state’s precincts showed Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, in a near dead heat, a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.