Santorum edging Romney in final Iowa tally

Santorum, left, speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens at the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Jan. 16, 2012. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool

Updated 11:40 a.m. ET

COLUMBIA, South Carolina -- Rick Santorum leads front-runner Mitt Romney by 34 votes in a surprise flip to the final results of the Iowa caucuses, Republican officials said Thursday, but no winner was declared because some votes remain missing in the event's closest finish ever.

Romney had initially been considered the winner -- by just 8 votes -- of the first contest in the Republican presidential nomination contest.

Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn announced the certified totals for the Jan. 3 caucuses at a news conference, but didn't name an official winner because some votes can't be counted. Results from 8 of the state's 1,774 precincts are missing.

"Just as I did on the early morning hours on Jan. 4, I congratulate Sen. Santorum and Gov. Romney on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history," Strawn said.

The certified results: Santorum with 29,839 votes and Romney at 29,805, a difference of 34. Ron Paul finished third with 26,036.

The new numbers could give a boost to Santorum and other candidates trying to undermine Romney's dominance over the field as South Carolina primary voters go to the polls Saturday.

The field narrowed further Thursday as Republican officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the announcement said Texas Gov. Rick Perry was abandoning his Republican presidential bid and endorsing Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives.

In a statement, Romney called the Iowa results a "virtual tie." The former Massachusetts governor praised Santorum's "strong performance" in the state.

Santorum was quick to claim the Iowa victory, saying in a fundraising email that "the incredible news" makes the score for Romney and himself 1-1. Romney followed Iowa with a strong win in New Hampshire. The third contest, South Carolina's primary, is Saturday.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and other Republican candidates are competing to attract voters seeking a more conservative alternative to Romney.

The Des Moines Register first reported the certified caucus totals on Thursday.

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