DES MOINES, Iowa — Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum staged an unexpected comeback in last night’s Iowa caucuses as the state party chairman announced that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat Santorum by the narrowest margin in the history of the caucuses — winning by only eight votes.

Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn announced Romney as the winner early this morning, with Romney earning 30,015 votes and Santorum receiving 30,007 of the more than 122,000 ballots cast.

Romney’s narrow win, coming in a contest traditionally thought to be a thermometer for the early phases of the presidential election, could offer clues as to which candidate will emerge to take on President Barack Obama in the fall.

Santorum, at one time a back-burner candidate, could now emerge as the top challenger to Romney, who has long been considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

“Game on,” Santorum said in a speech to his supporters in Johnston, Iowa earlier in the evening before the final results were announced.

Romney said he was pleased with the night’s close results as the campaign now moves to New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday.

‘‘We also feel it’s been a great victory for us,’’ Romney told supporters at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. In his speech, Romney turned his attacks toward Obama, calling his work “a failed presidency.”

“The president may be a nice guy, but he’s just over his head,” Romney said, stressing his experience in the private sector as evidence that he can help revitalize the economy.

Santorum’s strong performance last night might also establish him as a viable alternative to Romney, according to LSA junior Brian Koziara, external vice chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans. He said both candidates’ success, though, reflected the focus of voters on both the economy and social issues.

“The fact that Romney and Santorum are the two top vote-getters and they’re so closely tied shows that in addition to being very concerned about the social issues, like Rick Santorum is, Iowa is equally concerned about the economic issues (like Romney is.),” he said.

Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas) finished third with 21.5 percent of the vote. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R–Georgia) finished fourth, with 13 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry finished fifth with 10 percent of the vote. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) finished sixth with 5 percent of the vote.

Paul, Gingrich and Bachmann vowed to continue their campaigns in New Hampshire, but Perry said he would return to Texas to reconsider his options.

Koziara predicted that Gingrich would continue to slide, particularly as Santorum emerges as the “anti-Romney.” Despite the third-place finish, Koziara said the results showed Paul would not be a major contender, adding the caucuses also confirmed Romney’s status as a frontrunner.

Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings said this year’s caucuses were unique because voters in Iowa seemed to focus on the differences between the candidates themselves, rather than their specific policies.

“Part of the reason that we have the Iowa caucus is that it’s a sufficiently small state that people can get to ‘know’ their candidates and be familiar with their positions and make a considered judgment about which one is the preferable nominee,” Hutchings said. “But I don’t really think that’s what’s happening … if one would consider policy to be a priority in making these judgments.”

Political Science Prof. Ken Kollman said a close result like last night’s finish between Romney and Santorum muddles the nomination process heading into the New Hampshire primary.

“We could be in for a long season here,” Kollman said.

Hutchings agreed that a caucus victory alone will not likely determine the election chances.

“I don’t think the other states are thinking, ‘Oh, let’s see, Iowa made this decision. We respect the decision of Iowa, so I guess we’ll make a comparable decision,’” Hutchings said.

Koziara said a strong showing in Iowa would boost Romney’s chances in Michigan. Though Koziara said Romney will likely win the Michigan primary since his father, George Romney, was governor in the 1960s, finishing well in Iowa would aid Romney’s fundraising efforts.

“I think he’s going to win the Michigan primary regardless,” Koziara said. “What I think it does do, though, is give him the boost in Michigan when it comes to fundraising. And that’s really what the early winning is about.”

LSA senior Amanda Caldwell, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said she was encouraged by the caucus polls because they showed a lack of unity within the Republican Party.

Caldwell said she was not concerned about Obama’s potential Republican challengers because the Republican Party has become too conservative to appeal to moderate voters.

“The fact that the Republican party has moved so far to the right as the primary campaigns continue on, I think that’s going to be really difficult for them to overcome in the general elections,” she said.

— Daily News Editors Adam Rubenfire and Rayza Goldsmith reported from Des Moines and Daily Staff Reporter Andrew Schulman reported from Ann Arbor. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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