WASHINGTON - In a narrow finish in Iowa, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney edged out former US Senator Rick Santorum by eight votes in the Republican Party’s first contest aimed at nominating a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in the November elections.

Romney won the support of 30,015 caucus-goers, while Santorum polled 30,007 votes — both 25 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished third with 21 percent of the vote. A distant fifth-place finish apparently ended the once-promising candidacy of Rick Perry, the Texas governor. Perry, who started as a prime contender for the nomination last summer, broke off plans to fly to South Carolina for more campaigning, and said he was returning home instead to “determine whether this is a path forward.”

Santorum rode a late-breaking burst of support after getting counted out by virtually everyone until the final days of a long campaign. His Iowa comeback represented a drastic reversal from his last election night, a 17-point reelection drubbing in 2006. “Thank you so much, Iowa,” said the former Pennsylvania senator, who swapped his trademark sweater vest for a coat and tie to address jubilant supporters in a Des Moines suburb. The victory strengthened Romney’s candidacy heading into next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where he enjoys a big lead in the polls and a victory would provide momentum to make him the clear favourite to become the Republican aArty nominee.

Romney, addressing supporters at a downtown hotel, congratulated Santorum and Texas Congressman Paul.

“We also feel it’s been a great victory for us, as well,” he said.

Paul, nearly doubling his Iowa vote from 2008, was a close third. In an otherwise upbeat speech to supporters in the Des Moines suburbs, the Texas congressman said that he and Romney were the only top-tier vote-getters “who can actually run a national campaign and raise the money” — a clear shot at Santorum. Paul, 76, with an anti-government, anti-war message, was fueled by young voters, independents and first-time caucus-goers. “We have a tremendous opportunity to continue this momentum,” Paul said. But his failure to finish higher disappointed many of his supporters, the dejection evident on the face of his son and political heir, Senator Rand Paul, who stood behind him onstage. Iowa is better known for narrowing the field than picking a future president. Despite, or perhaps because of, the wild voter mood swings that produced a revolving cast of front-runners, the caucuses failed to generate the big increase in voter turnout that many Republicans were expecting.

Only slightly more Republicans turned out as in 2008. A clear, cold night was no barrier for Iowa residents. Republican leaders had expected that enthusiasm among party activists would mean increased turnout, like the huge vote that Democrats generated in 2008. But the lack of a compelling social conservative to excite the Christian conservatives who dominate the caucuses, and a late-starting push by Romney, who played down his Iowa campaign until the last six weeks, may have been contributing factors.