Iowa caucus results: Santorum and Romney in dead heat

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CBS

UPDATED 12:57 p.m. ET

Doors have closed at caucus precincts across Iowa, and early results show Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a dead heat with Ron Paul close behind.

CBS News entrance polling reveals Romney's voters are looking for someone who can beat President Obama, while Santorum's voters looking for a true conservative. Paul's voters are male, younger, and many are first-time caucus goers.

With 1,749 of 1,774 precincts reporting, Romney and Santorum were tied for the lead at 25 percent while Paul followed with 21 percent.

After finishing in a disappointing fifth place with 10 percent of the vote, Rick Perry said Tuesday night he is returning to his home state of Texas to "determine whether there is a path forward for me in this race." Rep. Michele Bachmann was in sixth place, with just 5 percent. Jon Huntsman decided not to compete in Iowa.

Full Iowa results
Iowa entrance poll results
Full Republican primary results

The precincts closed their doors at 7 p.m. CT, leaving Republican voters in the Hawkeye State to be the first to weigh in on this year's presidential contest. As of 11:30 p.m. ET, 123,000 were estimated to have participated in the caucuses -- more than 2008 and a record.

The caucus process is straightforward: Registered Republicans at the caucuses pass around paper ballots or may just write their choice on pieces of paper. The results are tallied and called into party headquarters.

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Full CBSNews.com coverage: Election 2012

The contest for the Republican presidential nomination has been hard fought over several months, with just about every candidate taking a turn leading in the polls. In both Iowa and nationwide polls, Romney has maintained the support of 20 percent to 30 percent of GOP voters. His GOP rivals, meanwhile, each enjoyed a temporary surge only to lose momentum.

Technically speaking, the caucuses are largely symbolic -- the results will represent the viewpoints of just a fraction of the American population. Iowa will send just 25 dedicated delegates to the Republican National Convention in Florida, where a candidate will need the support of at least 1,143 to win the presidential nomination. On top of all that, the Iowa delegates aren't officially chosen on caucus night -- they're selected at a state convention in June. (There are also three undedicated delegates who will also attend the June convention.)

That said, the caucuses could alter the dynamics of the race. Perry could be the first casualty of the nominating process, after his poor finish, and Bachmann may be reassessing her campaign as well. Their exit from the race could consolidate more support behind Santorum, or it could benefit Newt Gingrich -- in either case, Romney will have to work harder to prove he can get past Republican voters' suspicions that he is too moderate.

Romney's strong standing in Iowa defies the low expectations he set early in the year by paying the state little attention, but he has campaigned there vigorously in the past week. If he can win Iowa, Romney will have greater momentum -- but also higher expectations to meet -- in New Hampshire, where he already holds a double-digit lead.

Video: Iowa GOP chair on importance of caucuses
Video: Inside the Iowa caucuses

Since the modern system of Iowa and New Hampshire voting first was created in 1976, no non-incumbent Republican has ever won both. Back-to-back victories in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which takes place January 10, would be a significant symbolic score for Romney. After finishing second in Iowa four years ago, Romney is prepared for a drawn out nominating contest with strong organizations in several states this year, but he's also looking ahead to the general election.

In the final days of Iowa campaigning, Romney's rivals have sought to derail his lead. Newt Gingrich unequivocally called Romney a liar on CBS' The Early Show, while Paul launched an aggressive radio ad calling Romney a liberal.

Paul has attracted an ardent base of supporters with his libertarian views and has the organization to carry his campaign beyond Iowa.

Santorum, meanwhile, is finally reaping the benefits of more than 100 days of campaigning in Iowa. He was swarmed by press from all over the world Monday, CBS News political director John Dickerson reports.

Perry and Bachmann have been busy making a final appeal to Iowans, both arguing they are authentic conservatives -- unlike the frontrunners.

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