DES MOINES, Iowa, January 4, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - With only eight votes separating them, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have proved after last night’s Iowa primary vote that the battle between moderate and conservative forces in the Republican party will continue to both define and divide the GOP 2012 caucuses.

Ron Paul landed in a close third place, while U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the strongest social conservatives in the race, announced the end of her candidacy Wednesday after coming in at sixth place.

In the final count released this morning, Santorum’s 30,007 (24.54%) votes were defeated by 30,015 (24.55%) cast for the former Massachusetts governor. Ron Paul, whom many earlier polls placed at second or even first place, garnered 26,219 votes, or 21.5 percent. Newt Gingrich was fourth at 13 percent.

The results were a stunning turnaround for the pro-life and pro-family Santorum, who had trailed badly in polls earlier last year before shooting to the top of the pack in recent days after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hit a downward spiral. The outcome was even more surprising given the financial spread of the Iowa campaign: Santorum spent a mere $22,000 in personal funds, while Romney laid out $1.47 million, according to data published by Buzzfeed.

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Ron Paul, another social conservative, was the overwhelming winner of a Drudge poll the same night, with 33.6 percent of Iowans on the popular news nexus favoring him, leaving Santorum in second at nearly 21 percent and Romney at 20 percent. Paul also had a significant lead among nationwide Drudge participants.

Polls show Romney in a distant lead in the run-up to the New Hampshire caucus, with Ron Paul in second. 

In a speech earlier this morning, Santorum thanked God for the strong showing and said that America faces a choice: “whether we will be a country that believes that government can do things for us better than we can do for ourselves, or whether we believe, as our founders did, that rights come to us from God, and when he gave us those rights, he gave us the freedom to go out and live those rights out to build a great and just society, not from the top down but from the bottom up.”

Romney said the sharper contours of the race means that he will have a “big target” on him, but said he isn’t fazed. “I’ve got broad shoulders. I’m willing to handle it,” he said. Ron Paul said that he was not disappointed with the outcome, pointing out his popularity with both young and independent voters.

In a press conference this morning, Bachmann said that Iowa voters had made it clear she would have to stand aside. “I have no regrets, none whatsoever. We never compromised our principles and we can leave this race knowing we ran it with the utmost integrity,” she said.

The pro-life women’s political group Susan B. Anthony List praised Bachmann for her leadership on the right to life issue following the announcement of her departure from the race. Echoing the sentiments of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said the group looked forward to Bachmann’s continued leadership in the House of Representatives.

“We are sad to see such a strong leader leave the race, but know that her pro-life leadership is desperately needed in Congress,” said Dannenfelser.

Gov. Palin also weighed in on the tumultuous nature of the race, saying that the party must coalesce behind one conservative candidate. The Tea Party favorite stopped short of backing Santorum, however, whose support of life and family she commended.

Palin also emphasized that, in order to win, the GOP must recognize the power behind Ron Paul’s message of radical fiscal reform, which continues to attract enthusiastic, particularly among a younger crowd: the 76-year-old politician drew a rockstar reception at an Iowa high school among caucus-eligible youths just before Tuesday’s vote.

If Paul continues to be ignored by party elites, Palin said, “the GOP is going to lose, and there will be no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Despite Paul’s strong social conservatism, his flagship issue of states rights has run him into conflict with pro-family leaders such as the National Organization for Marriage, who launched a campaign attacking his unwillingness to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Paul responded that he supports the Defense of Marriage Act, but that otherwise the matter should be deferred to the states as a matter of Constitutional integrity.