Santorum, Romney, Paul Top Early Iowa Caucus Results (VIDEO)

Upstart GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, running in single digits in polls a month ago, was neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney for first place in Tuesday night's Iowa caucuses -- the first contest in the 2012 caucus and primary season -- early results showed.

Romney, Santorum neck and neck in Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) -- Upstart GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, running in single digits in polls a month ago, was neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney for first place in Tuesday night's Iowa caucuses -- the first contest in the 2012 caucus and primary season -- early results showed.



CNN has projected Ron Paul will finish third in Iowa, but the race for first was still too close to call late Tuesday.

With 89% of precincts reporting, Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had 25% of the vote. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, also had 25% of the vote, and Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas, had 21%.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was at 13%. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was at 10%, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had 5%, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had 1%.

Romney has long been a front-runner in Iowa and most national polls, but also has been stuck at roughly the same percentage of support as a revolving cast of conservative challengers bounced up and down, with Santorum the latest to rise.

Early numbers from entrance polls -- a sampling of Iowa voters as they headed into their caucus sites throughout the state -- showed a similar breakdown in support, with Paul, Romney and Santorum in a virtual first-place tie, and Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann in fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

In the entrance polls, Paul showed the strongest support among voters aged 17-29, while Romney was the preference of those 65 and older. Strong support for Santorum was expressed among those 45-64.

The caucuses began at 7 p.m. in 809 locations after months of pitches from GOP candidates vying for the chance to take on President Barack Obama in November. They'll be hoping to gain enough momentum to make them viable in the next few January contests, as Iowa can effectively cull the field.

Romney was the GOP front-runner in several major Iowa polls last week, with Paul second and Santorum third.

Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, hasn't been competing in Iowa, choosing instead to focus efforts on New Hampshire, site of the first primary, set for January 10.

The Iowa results typically are important because they give the top finishers the fuel they need, including fundraising, to keep their campaigns going. The top three or four finishers in Iowa should be in a good position to compete in New Hampshire and the January 21 South Carolina primary, said Republican and CNN contributor Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary.

Several candidates -- Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann -- have been positioning themselves as a conservative alternative to Romney, and the leader among them after Iowa may make the case that the supporters of the other three should coalesce around them.

"Mitt Romney doesn't want anybody to drop out," Fleischer said of the apparent front-runner, suggesting Romney would want to have the anti-Romney vote split as many ways as possible. "Rick Santorum wants everybody to drop out."

With Romney considered the runaway favorite in New Hampshire, which neighbors the state he used to govern, the other candidates who continue past Iowa are expected to make a stand in South Carolina.

Perry, whose standing in polls declined after a series of lackluster debate performances, has been characterizing the race as a long haul in recent days as Santorum has pulled away from him and the rest of the middle of the pack.

Few Republicans in Iowa believe Perry will nab one of the coveted top three spots on Tuesday night, but Perry's team argues that two of the likely top finishers -- Paul and Santorum -- are not viable candidates in the long run.

A fourth place finish, in the Perry campaign's view, would eliminate Gingrich and leave Perry as the only strong conservative alternative to front-runner Romney.

"I'm the only person who has got a national organization, who has the ability to raise the money nationally, and has the ground game in these other states to do that," Perry said hours before the Iowa caucuses. "... It's not Rick Santorum. And frankly, Rick is going to have a real problem when he leaves and people start vetting his background from a fiscal conservative standpoint. This guy is the king of earmarks and pork barrel spending. ... He's got some real bags that he's going to have to explain to people, and that's going to be a problem for him."

Obama, who is not expected to face a major challenge for the Democratic nomination, spoke to caucus-goers in an interactive video-teleconference to Democratic caucus sites Tuesday night.

He touted the end of the war in Iraq, health care reform and making college more affordable as some of his achievements — a similar message to the "promises" campaign video rolled out this week.

"In some ways, I'm more optimistic now than I was when I first ran, because we've already seen change take place," Obama said in the teleconference. "And part of what 2012 is about is reminding the American people how far we've traveled and the concrete effects that some of our work has had in terms of making sure people have health insurance and making sure our troops are coming home, or making sure people are able to go to college.

"Part of it is also framing this larger debate: What kind of country are we going to leave for our children and grandchildren?"

As the caucuses approached Tuesday, Gingrich escalated his war of words with Romney, saying the former Massachusetts governor was less than honest by claiming he has no link to a political action committee that has produced anti-Gingrich TV ads.

Asked by CBS on Tuesday if he would call Mitt Romney a liar, Gingrich answered flatly, "Yes."

Gingrich said Romney needs to be honest with voters about his record.

"I think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney and not a consultant-guided version that goes with talking points. I don't think he's being candid and that will be a major issue," Gingrich said.

Gingrich, who surged to the top of polls in November after a string of strong debate performances, came under withering fire from ads paid for by super PACs that support Romney, and subsequently crashed back into the pack.

Paul's campaign also went on the attack against the front-runner, launching a one-minute radio spot calling the former Massachusetts governor a "liberal" who has supported government bailouts, health care mandates and big government.

The ad was running in Iowa on Tuesday morning and afternoon.

The announcer reads, "Mitt Romney can't fight against Obama-care because he supported the same mandates and government takeovers as governor of Massachusetts. Romney can't stand up against more bailouts because he supported them. He can't lead the charge to shrink the government because he has grown it."

Romney, making his second bid for the nomination, gave his standard stump speech Tuesday morning to a small crowd in Des Moines. He told CNN's Candy Crowley that he expected to do well Tuesday night and defined that as finishing in the "top three."

Crowley noted that the rally had all the trappings of a presidential campaign, with Romney trying to keep his distance from his Republican rivals.

Romney didn't take questions from reporters. He ignored reporter's repeated requests for reaction to Gingrich calling him a liar.

After speaking confidently Monday of his chances to win his party's nomination, he used the rally Tuesday to go after Obama.

"He went on the 'Today' show shortly after being inaugurated and said that if he's not able to turn around the economy in three years, he'd be looking at a one-term proposition," Romney said of Obama. "I'm here to collect. He's out."

Gingrich sounded more positive about his chances on Tuesday, a day after telling reporters he did not expect to win the Iowa caucus.

"I think we could win," Gingrich said on CNN's "Starting Point." "Four of us are in a position to win this come late tonight."

On Monday, Gingrich said he didn't think he would win, blaming his recent slide in national and statewide polls on the negative ads from a super PAC that supports Romney's candidacy.

Iowa ad spending down, but negative ads are up

The lesser-known Santorum's campaign reported that his surge in the polls was fueling a 300% to 400% daily increase in fundraising over the past 10 days. The campaign has collected more money over the past month than it has raised in the past six months, according to a senior Santorum adviser.

In the hours leading to Tuesday's caucuses, Santorum downplayed expectations a touch. Asked if he was feeling confident about caucus night, he said: "Well, I feel like if we can crack the top three, that would be great."

Santorum said his strong background as a social conservative better positions him for a win in 2012 rather than a more moderate candidate.

"I would suggest that if you look at the history of Republican nominees ... moderate candidates who are there to appeal to more moderates ended up losing," Santorum said in an event in Polk City.

Bachmann, who released her final ad in Iowa on Monday, took aim at Santorum during a campaign stop in West Des Moines, criticizing earmarks he supported while serving in Congress.

Bachmann also said she thinks people will be "very surprised" with Tuesday's results.

"We feel very confident," she said. "I have over 200 pastors that have endorsed me across Iowa. We had multiple pastor endorsements that have come in just in this last week alone. They are highly influential in their communities and in their congregations.

"So I think there is a lot of silent support that is actually going to come out tonight."

She also said her campaign already is focusing on South Carolina's primary.

Polls in New Hampshire show Romney with a large lead there. So although candidates will attend a televised debate in New Hampshire on Saturday, those positioning themselves as a conservative alternative to Romney are expected to focus on South Carolina's larger pool of conservative voters in the coming days.

"We are confident, and that is why we bought our tickets for South Carolina," Bachmann said in West Des Moines on Tuesday. "We are moving forward because this election is far from over."

Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, continued to focus on New Hampshire on Tuesday. One of his campaign stops was in Pembroke, New Hampshire.

"All I can tell you is, we are going to exceed market expectations," Huntsman said in Pembroke. "... Give it about 24 hours and the bright light will be on New Hampshire and the results of the Iowa caucuses will be forgotten."