LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been considered a front-runner in this race since before the campaign began. Yet, at the end of voting yesterday, he did no better than he had four years earlier.
NPR's Ari Shapiro was at Romney campaign headquarters in Des Moines, and walks us through that tense and dramatic evening.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The State of Iowa Historical Building sits at the foot of the shimmering, grandiose Iowa Capitol Dome. And this one of hundreds of sites across the state where Iowans are gathering tonight to cast the first votes in the 2012 presidential race.
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SHAPIRO: All right, first person to arrive in the caucus room, the precinct head here. Would you introduce yourself?
GRANT YOUNG: Grant Young.
SHAPIRO: So who you voting for tonight?
YOUNG: Still undecided.
SHAPIRO: It's two hours before the caucus.
YOUNG: I still got time.
SHAPIRO: Is this how you typically vote, undecided until the last minute?
YOUNG: No, not typically.
SHAPIRO: So what makes this year so different?
YOUNG: You know, I think that me, along with many other of the - what do they say - 41 percent of the undecideds out there tonight going to their precincts, they want to get this right. We can't afford the policies and the direction in this country that Barack Obama's taken this country, because, you know, as the old saying, if you don't win, you don't govern.
SHAPIRO: And just down the block from that caucus site, Occupy the Caucuses has taken over a storefront in the East Village neighborhood of Des Moines. All right. Will you introduce yourself? Tell me your name and what you do for a living?
REVEREND DANIEL BRAG: Reverend Daniel Brag, a farmer.
SHAPIRO: What are you guys doing here?
BRAG: We wanted people to come in and occupy the candidates. We wanted the candidates to hear our voices, which they have not. Every time we go to one of the candidates' offices, we get met with the police.
SHAPIRO: And now we are at one of the candidates' headquarters. This is Mitt Romney's election night party. It is still early in the evening, and Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are running neck and neck and neck.
COLLEEN BOYLE: My name's Colleen Boyle. I'm a student at Vanderbilt University.
SHAPIRO: So, how are you feeling?
BOYLE: I think we all kind of knew it was going to be a three-way race. But either way, I think he's going to come out strong in New Hampshire. So...
SHAPIRO: So, you're just pinning your bets on what comes after Iowa, whether or not he wins here tonight.
BOYLE: Yeah, I think so.
SHAPIRO: At this point, the Romney supporters are flooding into the room, and more information about voters is coming in, too. We're learning that the people who voted for Romney tended to be older, they tended to be more moderate. And the thing that was most important to them as they cast their votes was finding somebody who could defeat President Barack Obama in the general election. Now, South Dakota Senator John Thune, a Republican who has been on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney, is about to sit down and talk with the NPR special. Let's listen in.
SENATOR JOHN THUNE: Obviously, his campaign is prepared for the long fight. They are prepared to go the distance and have the resources and organization to do that. And I think that's how they're proceeding. But coming out, I think, tonight in the top three would certainly be a very strong finish for him, one that I think would position him well as the next states come up.
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SHAPIRO: And you can hear from that cheer that with almost 80 percent of the vote counted, Mitt Romney is up. Well, in the last hour or two, things have progressed and changed, and still we have no clear winner in Iowa. But what is clear is that this a virtual tie between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, and that Romney is not going to emerge with the decisive Iowa victory that he had hoped.
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SHAPIRO: Looks like the Occupy protestors have arrived. And it's now 11 p.m. The crowd is at capacity, and just a few dozen votes separate Rick Santorum from Mitt Romney. And now, at last, here's Mitt Romney.
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MITT ROMNEY: Thank you, Iowa, for the great sendoff you're giving to us and to the others in this campaign. Look, this is a campaign night where America wins. We're going to change the White House and get America back on track.
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SHAPIRO: Well, after this long night, Mitt Romney barely eked out a win ahead of Rick Santorum. Now, the fight moves to New Hampshire, in Romney's own backyard. Primary voters there cast their ballots next week. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Des Moines.
WERTHEIMER: We're waiting for the start of a news conference from Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in Iowa. The Associated Press and other entities are quoting campaign sources, saying Ms. Bachmann will suspend her bid for president after finishing a poor sixth in the contest in Iowa. Stay tuned to NPR for more details. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.