Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was declared winner of the Iowa caucuses by the narrowest of margins, claiming only eight votes over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in the first contest to secure the Republican Party nomination to run for president.

It was a big night for both candidates who were in a virtual tie for hours in what is being called one of the closest races in Iowa caucus history.

Romney and Santorum each received nearly 25 percent of the vote. In third place was Congressman Ron Paul of Texas with 21 percent.


It was an especially big night for long-shot contender and social-conservative favorite Santorum, whose campaign has surged in the final weeks.

"You have taken the first step of taking back this country," Santorum said of his showing.

Romney, long considered by many the leading contender for the nomination, has remained at the top of the pack despite Santorum's recent surge and an earlier one by former House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

"This is a campaign night where America wins," said Romney. "We are going to change [the] White House and get America back on track."

Congressman Paul thanked his supporters for their "energy and efforts." "But what makes me feel really good about it is that you are doing it because you believe in something,? he said.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who finished sixth, announced she was pulling out of the race during a press conference on Wednesday.

Gingrich, a former House speaker, came in fourth place and vowed to campaign on in New Hamsphire, which holds its primary on January 10.

It was a disappointing night for Texas Governor Rick Perry, who came in fifth place and said he would return to Texas to reconsider his campaign.

Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman came in last with one percent. Huntsman has not campaigned in Iowa and has said he is pinning his hopes on a good showing in New Hampshire.

Across Iowa, voters gathered at caucus sites, often nothing but small meeting rooms where votes are counted by hand.

At a much larger gathering at a high school near Des Moines, Samona Joy Yentes lobbied neighbors on behalf of Santorum and even addressed the caucus.

?We want to send you a strong candidate that we believe will go toe to toe and will defeat Barack Obama and provide strong leadership for our nation,? said Yentes.

The close finish in Iowa could signal a long and divisive Republican primary campaign, says pollster Frank Luntz.

?It is interesting that some Republicans are more interested in defeating each other than they are in defeating the president," said Luntz. "That is not going to play well over the long term.?

President Obama addressed Democrats caucusing for him in Iowa, and Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the president is ready to face whichever Republican wins the nomination.

Obama is ?fighting for the middle class, [and] beginning to get the economy turned around," said Wasserman, who vowed to defeat "Republicans, any one of them, that want us to return to the failed policies of the past that brought us to the precipice of economic disaster."

The Republican race now shifts to New Hampshire primary battleground where Mitt Romney is a strong favorite.

Romney's campaign is expected to get another boost Wednesday with an endorsement from 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.

While the results from Iowa put Romney and Santorum on top, they forced former front-runner and Texas governor Rick Perry to question the future of his presidential bid.  Perry said in a speech late Tuesday that he will head home to Texas to reconsider his campaign after finishing fifth with 10 percent of the vote, behind Gingrich.

The Democratic Party also held its caucuses. President Obama was unopposed for the party nomination, but hosted a live web chat with supporters in Iowa Tuesday night.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.