Jubilant Santorum team cheers Iowa success, declares caucus victory

JOHNSTON, Iowa — The result of the Iowa caucuses were still not clear by the early hours of Wednesday morning but jubilant Rick Santorum aides were celebrating a moral victory here, after their candidate held Mitt Romney to a virtual tie. 

Santorum had seemed dead in the water in Iowa as recently as three weeks ago.

Romney won the caucuses with an eight-vote margin in the final count.

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Asked by The Hill whether he would be disappointed if the final figures gave Romney the edge, Santorum campaign manager Mike Biundo replied: "I think we already have a victory here tonight."

In a separate interview, Matt Schultz, the Iowa secretary of State and the only statewide official to endorse Santorum, laughed incredulously at the idea that a razor-thin Romney margin of victory would really constitute a loss for Santorum.

"It's not a loss. Are you kidding me?" Schultz said. "Three weeks ago everybody said he needed to get out [of the race]. He was in last place. This is a win. I don't care if it's 50 votes or 100 votes, Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses and I believe that is the story that is going to be coming out tonight."

Romney aides are already looking to the battles to come in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, all of which hold primaries this month. Biundo contended that New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 10, would prove to be more hospitable terrain for Santorum's brand of conservatism than is generally understood.

"You guys will say it's not conservative, but it typically picks conservative nominees," Biundo told reporters. "You guys might think it is a little more to the left of other places, but it's not. They want to hear straight talk, they want to hear a conservative message. They want to hear someone who will talk plainly to them and that is Rick Santorum."

Irrespective of how the result finally shakes out, it will clearly boost Santorum's standing — and his fundraising, which had been markedly anemic until the past couple of weeks.

Senior political advisor Hogan Gidley earlier in the evening told The Hill: "There is no doubt that we will add staff, take this campaign nationwide. It will be a bigger campaign. But what it is not going to be is a big, bloated behemoth, like these other campaigns, because that's not who Rick is."

Santorum's team will also make the case that he is now the sole authentic conservative alternative to Romney. As The Hill reported on Tuesday evening, Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats called for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry to pull out of the race, arguing that doing so would make it easier for Santorum to maximize the conservative vote.

Perry said Tuesday evening he was going back to Texas to "reasses" his campaign. Bachmann vowed to stay in the race.

The former Pennsylvania senator spoke during his address about his personal history as the grandson of an Italian immigrant and the father of a handicapped daughter. He also sought to rebut the idea that he is a less electable candidate than Romney in the general election against Obama.

"People say that another candidate in this race, who is running a rather close race with me tonight, is a better person to choose, because he can win," he said. When a person in the crowd shouted out "Romneycare," Santorum asked in mock confusion, "What did you say? Oh, 'Romneycare'? OK, I just didn't hear you."

He then added, "What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts."

Santorum, wearing a suit instead of the sweater vest that had gotten so much media attention, thanked those in the assembled crowd for their help in propelling his surprise surge in the GOP nominating contest.

"By standing up and not compromising, by standing up and being bold and leading, leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step to taking back this country," he told supporters.

But amidst the celebration, he worked to parlay his early win into a campaign narrative as he continues on to New Hampshire. Santorum argued that by adopting a conservative platform that compassionately considered the interests of the less fortunate, he could appeal to Rust Belt swing voters.

"We've been told there's another candidate — who is running a rather close race with me tonight — who is a better choice to choose because he can win ... [but] what wins in America is bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone," Santorum said.

"I shared the values of the working people in that [Pennsylvania] district. If we have someone who can go out to western Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Michigan, and Indiana, and Wisconsin, and Iowa, and Missouri and appeal to the voters who have been left behind by a Democratic Party that wants to make them dependent instead of valuing their work, we will win this election," he continued.

Santorum's surprise showing came as he capitalized on ideal timing and a textbook Iowa campaign that included a tour of every county in the state. Newt Gingrich, the last before Santorum in a series of Romney-alternative candidates to rise to the top of the Iowa polls, was damaged badly by a barrage of attack advertisements.

"This has been an incredible journey, 99 counties, 381 town hall meetings, 36 pizza ranches — and you notice I'm not buttoning my coat for a reason. It's been a great journey," Santorum said.

Santorum acknowledged in an interview later on CNN that he faced an uphill battle in New Hampshire.

"I'm a little bit behind the curve in the sense that Gov. Romney has been spending a lot of money and a lot of time up there and running for six years, but we think we can compete," Santorum said.

Santorum also downplayed reports that 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain would be endorsing Romney Wednesday in New Hampshire.

"I commend Gov. Romney for getting his endorsement but I'm not surprised by it," Santorum said. "I mean John is a more moderate member of the Republican team."

But Santorum described his campaign as having a message that will resonate across the land," and said he would "climb that ladder just like we did [in Iowa]."

He also thanked Gingrich, who finished in fourth place, for kind words during his concession speech earlier in Iowa, saying that he empathized with the former Speaker's anger toward Romney.

"I was here in Iowa and I can understand the way he feels the way he did, it was a pummeling he took at the hands of Mitt Romney and it was literally every commercial break, and that's difficult when you have someone with those kind of resources," Santorum said.

After the speech, Santorum was escorted down a narrow corridor, surrounded by press and congratulated by supporters as he went. The effect was akin to that of a boxer leaving the ring victorious.

Lining the hallways were supporters like Kirsten Hanson, a 29-year-old event coordinator from Altoona, Iowa. She said that she had "never cared about politics, ever" before becoming aware of Santorum when he spoke at the screening of an anti-abortion documentary. She attended caucuses for the first time, and voted for him, Tuesday evening. The result, she said, was "amazing."

-- This story was updated at 2:33 a.m.