DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Republicans had the first say of the 2012 presidential campaign Tuesday, kicking off a contentious battle to pick a champion to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.
The Iowans crowded into firehouses and church basements in caucus meetings on a cold, clear evening, a quadrennial showcase of democracy that often winnows the field of candidates while sending top finishers off to the rest of the country. Party officials expected a record turnout, eclipsing the 118,000 who showed up in 2008. This edition went to press before results were known.
Early returns signaled a close three-way contest among Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Trailing in the second tier were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Her campaign appeared on life support, perhaps the first casualty of the voting.
The campaign races next to the East Coast for a rapid-fire series of contests that might be called the "Interstate 95 primary," with primary elections in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, in South Carolina on Jan. 21, and in Florida on Jan. 31.
Romney dominates in New Hampshire polls, so much so that anything less than a landslide win by him there could be seen as a setback.
New Hampshire is more liberal than Iowa, much less interested in social issues than Iowa, and much more challenging to social conservatives. It's also very familiar with Romney, who has a summer home there and governed next door. He leads by a better than 2-to-1 margin over Paul and nearly 3-to-1 over Gingrich.
Gingrich and Paul both will challenge Romney on his home turf. Gingrich arrives in New Hampshire on Wednesday morning and vows to hammer Romney as a closet liberal.
After watching his lead in Iowa crushed by a torrent of negative ads from Romney and an independent pro-Romney group — as well as other rivals and news media commentators — Gingrich is vowing to hit back hard.
Tuesday morning he called Romney a liar for his anti-Gingrich ads. "He doesn't tell the truth," Gingrich said.
A Gingrich ad in Wednesday morning's New Hampshire Union Leader will blast Romney as a "Timid Massachusetts Moderate."
Santorum also heads to New Hampshire on Wednesday, eager to prove that his late surge into the top tier in Iowa was not an isolated event, thanks to his long campaigning there. He visited all 99 Iowa counties.
He also aims to prove he has broader appeal beyond the Christian conservatives in Iowa who helped propel him toward the top. Mike Huckabee did the same thing after winning Iowa four years ago — but finished a distant third in New Hampshire to moderates John McCain and Romney and never recovered.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also is waiting in New Hampshire after skipping Iowa. "Welcome to New Hampshire. Nobody cares," he said of the Iowa vote during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
"It's a long road," Romney said Tuesday before the caucuses. "I'll have a target painted on me, and so I expect other folks to come after me. ... And, you know, if I can't stand up to that, I shouldn't be the nominee."
South Carolina, though, could become the pivotal battleground, the next place where all the candidates compete.
Deeply conservative, the state is the first test in the Republican South and a strong measure of success with the party base. Since 1980, every winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination.
Bachmann and Perry will largely skip New Hampshire — except for nationally televised debates there on Saturday and Sunday — and head to South Carolina for what they hope will crown one candidate as the conservative alternative to Romney.
"The idea that one or two states is going to decide who the next nominee for the Republican Party is is just, you know, that's not reality," Perry said on CNN Tuesday.
However, Romney aides say privately that they want a large field of conservatives dividing up the South Carolina vote and allowing him to win.
And Romney's not conceding the state even this week leading to New Hampshire's vote Tuesday. He dashes to South Carolina late Thursday for a few events before heading back to New Hampshire on Friday.
Romney also announced Tuesday his first TV ad in Florida, a sign that he's looking past immediate contests. Aides have long noted that he is the one candidate who can wage a coast-to-coast campaign with his war chest and deep organization.
Whether all the candidates make it further is an open question, particularly for Bachmann. The woman who won a straw poll of Iowa Republicans in August and briefly held first place in the polls all but collapsed in recent weeks.
She announced that she'd forge ahead, scheduling campaign events in South Carolina on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. She also looked to the two nationally televised debates in New Hampshire as a last, free chance to turn things around.
Still, she faced pressure to drop out even before Tuesday's caucuses.
"I don't think it is her time this go-around," Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, said on Fox News hours before Republicans went to the caucuses. "Unless she, too, wants to spend her own money or borrowing money and perhaps go into debt ... perhaps she is one, too, who would start saying, 'Supporters of mine, why don't we coalesce around one of the other candidates?' "
Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report from Iowa from the McClatchy Washington Bureau.