By DAVID ESPO and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Republicans rendered the first verdict in the 2012 race for the White House on Tuesday in Iowa caucuses from Adel to Zearing, opening night for the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the fall.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shared the straw poll ballot with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in a caucus race as jumbled as any in the 40 years since Iowa gained the presidential campaign lead-off position.
The winner was in line for bragging rights - and perhaps much more - as the Republican nominating campaign makes the turn to primaries in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, then South Carolina and Florida before the end of January. For some of the also-rans, history suggested the first event of the year might also be their last.
The Iowa caucuses' outsized importance was underscored by the estimated $13 million in television advertising by the candidates and so-called super PACs as well as thousands of campaign stops designed to sway 100,000 or so voters.
Ironically, the weak economy that has made Obama appear vulnerable nationally was muted as an issue here. Despite areas of economic distress, the farm economy is strong. Iowa's unemployment in November was 5.7 percent, sixth lowest in the country and well below the national reading of 8.6 percent.
Unlike in a primary, in which voting occurs over hours, the 809 Iowa caucuses were meetings in which Republicans gathered for an evening of politics. Each presidential candidate was entitled to have a supporter deliver a speech on his or her behalf before straw ballots were taken.