Updated at 11:59 p.m. ET
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were locked Tuesday evening in a virtual tie for first place in Iowa’s Republican caucuses.
NBC News projects that Texas Rep. Ron Paul will finish third following a closely-fought battle in the first nominating contest of the 2012 Republican primary.
Iowans began gathering throughout the state at 8 p.m. ET to caucus for their preferred candidate for the GOP nomination. Still-incomplete tabulations of caucus results show Santorum and Romney locked at about 25 percent each of the vote tally before midnight, while Paul trailed at 21 percent
Three other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann had also sought to beat expectations and rejuvenate their candidacies in subsequent primary contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Gingrich had an edge, at 13 percent, over Perry (10 percent) in early returns, while Bachmann lags in sixth, at 5 percent.
Perry said he would take the next few days to re-assess his campaign.
“I’ve decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race,” he said in remarks shortly before midnight.
The results marked the capstone of a furious, last-minute surge by Santorum in the closing weeks of the campaign. He managed to rally conservatives, who’d searched desperately throughout the campaign for an alternative to Romney, after other would-be contenders washed out throughout the fall.
In the end, Romney essentially matched his vote total from 2008, though he invested much less time and money in Iowa this cycle. But the results still underscore the existing narrative in the campaign, that Romney is struggling to win over skeptical conservatives.
For his part, Santorum punched his ticket out of Iowa in part by emerging as the winner of a virtual game of musical chairs among candidates in Iowa who had themselves as the anti-Romney candidate. The former Pennsylvania senator had campaigned in Iowa the “traditional” way, having started to stump there well before any candidate, and becoming the first candidate to visit all of the state’s 99 counties.
The former Pennsylvania senator performed best among caucus-goers who describe themselves as very conservative, according to entrance poll data. He also won over evangelical Christians and caucus attendees who tabbed social issues as one fo their priorities…