The Iowa caucuses, at risk as ever this election cycle, emerged from Tuesday’s balloting validated, caucus veterans in the state said late Tuesday.
With the final result still in doubt late into the evening, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney were battling for the top spot, while Ron Paul was finishing third.
Santorum’s last minute surge followed a dogged organizational effort, while Romney built on an intense albeit unsuccessful effort four years ago. Paul also spent more time and effort here than he did in 2008.
All that, state analysts say, adds up to the state playing it’s traditional gatekeeper role, all the while providing a chance for insurgent and well organized candidates.
“I think it says we did our job,” said Steve Grubbs, a former party chair who had run Herman Cain’s campaign in Iowa before he dropped out. “The out states have three diverse candidates to choose from.”
As the GOP hopefuls were getting ready to flee the state for New Hampshire — and those who didn’t finish in the top three here were explaining their own finishes late Tuesday — Iowa party leaders will undoubtedly begin making their own case for why the state should keep its spot at the head of the line.
Brian Kennedy, who was Romney’s state chair, said: “Iowa worked.”
“The three candidates who spent the time here did the best,” he added.
Romney downplayed Iowa until a late effort when it became clear there was a chance to win. But the investment Romney made in 2008 paid off in eastern Iowa this year and also in parts of central Iowa that were trouble spots four years ago, Kennedy noted.
Traditionally, there are three tickets out of Iowa, but Gingrich said in post-caucus remarks that he’d continue on. Michele Bachmann didn’t say what her plans are during her post-caucus remarks.
Perry said he would “return to Texas” to assess his campaign and whether it could move forward.
Grubbs said, with Santorum to become a new target, there’s a chance Gingrich could recover and move up again.
“Is Gingrich the John McCain?” of this cycle, he asked, referring to the Arizona senator who virtually skipped Iowa but ran off a string of later victories to win the party’s 2008 nomination.
But if somebody was going to target Santorum, at least Tuesday night, it wasn’t Gingrich. He praised Santorum effusively in his post-caucus speech for running a clean campaign.
“I wish I could say that for all the candidates,” he added, a clear reference to Romney, making it clear that’s who he’d go after in New Hampshire.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had his doubts whether anybody but Santorum, Romney or Paul would survive the caucuses.
“Iowa is a blow to all the people who aren’t in the top three. I think for the most part there are only three tickets out of Iowa,” he said Tuesday night.
Romney and Santorum had not spoken by press time, apparently awaiting the final results before they spoke.
Reporter Mike Wiser contributed to this story