By Alan Fisher
It was just before two in the morning when the head of Iowa's Republican Party walked onto the stage in front of the thinning ranks of journalists in the Polk Convention Centre in Des Moines to announce the result of the state's caucus.
After a record turnout of more than 122, 000, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, topped the poll by just eight votes.
But even though he finished first, the big winner on the night was the new standard bearer for the right of Republican Party, former Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum.
And that perhaps is an indication of the battle America's Grand Old Party has been having with itself over the past two years.
It believes Barack Obama is vulnerable and they could easily consign him to the history books as a one-term president, but they don't know what face to present to the wider American public.
Is it the rightwing, socially conservative candidate who chimes with the party's core supporter and can tap into the influence and cash from the Tea Party faction?
Or should it be the more moderate, mainstream Republican who may appeal to independents and disaffected Democrats but will only get the support of some Republicans if they hold their nose and cast their ballot?
Mitt Romney still remains the man most likely. He has the money and the organisation. For third place Ron Paul, his 21 per cent was impressive, but this is likely to be the high point of his Republican run.
What worries the party is that he opts back to his Libertarian roots and runs as he did in 1988 - as a third party candidate. That would suck in some Democrats - but it would damage the Republicans more. And they know it.
Rick Santorum will find his impressive performance in Iowa will attract some new best friends who'll pump in money. Certainly the decision of Michelle Bachmann to drop out of the race will help him.
Suddenly his voice emerges from the cacophony of candidates insisting they are the true conservative and that will bring access to a broader support and he will have access to important campaign staff who have suddenly become available.
Santorum will continue to hammer his anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-Iran message.
But he will also continue to talk about restoring America's manufacturing base which will play well in many places and many states which have struggled through the financial crisis.
And let's not forget he comes from Pennsylvania, a big important state in the primaries and in the general election.
Santorum's second place in Iowa was built through visiting each of the state's 99 counties, spending weeks shaking hands, kissing babies and talking to people one on one. He won't have the luxury of a slow burn now as the contests start to come up at speed.
And as a front-runner, he now attracts a lot more media and voter attention to his past and his record.
He'll compete in New Hampshire, but Romney, whose ties to the state are deep, will win there easily.
It will be the third contest in South Carolina which is where Santorum will have to prove he has what it takes as a genuine challenger to Romney and a big player in the Republican Party, and someone who could possibly match up with Barack Obama in November.
Follow Alan Fisher on Twitter through the presidential campaign: @alanfisher
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|Timothy V. Gatto|