Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucus on Tuesday night by the narrowest of margins, besting former US Senator Rick Santorum by just eight votes in the first primary for the Republican presidential nomination.

The final tally was 30,015 to 30,007, giving each man 25 percent of the overall — the closest Iowa contest since 1980. Texas congressman Ron Paul came in third with 21 percent.

Dogged by accusations of being too liberal and a flip-flopper on the main issues, Romney’s support within the party has always been tepid at best, but he’s now widely considered the front-runner in a race that has seen its lead change with dizzying speed.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who just a few weeks ago held front-runner status himself, finished fourth with about 13 percent of the votes. He blames his diminished popularity on a series of attack ads launched by Romney supporters, and made it clear he’d campaign more aggressively against him in the months to come.

Romney seems all too aware of the target on his back, telling ABC’s ‘Good Morning America,’ “I know the attacks are going to come and they’re going to become more fast and furious now.”

But the big news was Santorum’s strong showing. The staunch conservative came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Iowa race on a shoestring budget, buoyed by the support of far-right voters who see his views as being more synonymous with their own — and proving Romney’s path to the GOP nomination will continue to be a bumpy one.

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who at one point seemed a virtual lock for the nomination before a series of rather embarrassing public gaffes derailed his momentum, announced he was going home to “reassess” his campaign. And on Wednesday morning, Minnesota congresswoman and Iowa straw-poll winner Michele Bachmann pulled out of the race entirely, saying she didn’t see a way forward after her sixth-place caucus showing.

For his part, President Obama seems ready for whichever candidate will oppose him in November, telling Iowa supporters via video, “I hope you guys are geared up.”

The remaining GOP contenders will next travel to New Hampshire for a Saturday night debate, followed by the state’s primary on January 10.