DES MOINES, Iowa -- In many ways distinctly different, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney took near opposite paths to twin victories in Iowa's presidential caucuses.
The little-known, cash-strapped Santorum broke through as the leading conservative contender by cutting a painstaking path through every Iowa county. Romney, the GOP's deep-pocketed national front-runner, wanted to avoid being seen as underperforming and captured the state's more urban areas with little effort.
Both of their strategies went almost perfectly according to plan.
Santorum, a fierce abortion-rights opponent, caught fire with undecided social conservatives in the campaign's final two weeks, while Romney won over undecided Republicans who were concerned about finding a candidate to beat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Their near-even finish at about 25 percent each, punctuated by libertarian-leaning Ron Paul's close third-place showing, illustrates the sharp divide in the GOP going forward and the work ahead for the candidates hoping to establish a winning coalition.
After a long night, Romney won the caucuses – by eight votes. But Santorum was hardly a loser, coming as far as he did in such a short time.
"You have one, deep within the right, and a scrapper, who did it the old-school, shoe-leather way," said John Stineman, an Iowa Republican strategist who ran Steve Forbes' 2000 Iowa caucus campaign. "And you have the candidate who is the national front-runner, who put together a strategy for how they compete and manage expectations."
Santorum carried vast tracts of Iowa's rural areas and its conservative northwest, having methodically campaigned in each of Iowa's 99 counties. For months, he persisted in meeting county party leaders a handful at a time, in 381 local meetings.
Romney carried many of Iowa's most populous counties, including a number of those he won four years ago, spending less than one-fifth the time and money he did during his 2008 campaign.
While Santorum needed to establish himself in a field of far better-known rivals, Romney needed to survive without underperforming in a state where he was viewed as the most electable, but where the state's influential social conservatives had doubts about his Mormon faith and changed positions on social issues.
Both had a lot to prove.
Romney, who got 24 percent of the vote in a disappointing second-place finish four years ago, needed to do well, while acknowledging that his support was capped by his spotty background with strict conservatives.
Santorum needed to show a more traditional approach could still succeed.
Both benefited from a lot of time in Iowa. For Romney, though, that time was spent in 2007.
Santorum started in September 2009, making his first Iowa appearance at a suburban Des Moines church to speak to an abortion opposition group training program.
"You, by standing up and not compromising, ... have taken the first step in taking this country back," Santorum told supporters at a rally back then in Johnston.
It was a sign of things to come. Santorum would go on to headline multi-candidate forums around the state, often winding up as the last speaker and holding the audience rapt with stories of his Senate fights over abortion legislation or his disabled daughter's struggles.
While no candidate put together the coalition of evangelical voters former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did in winning four years ago, Santorum surged late with this group, picking up endorsements from influential pastors.
He picked up Sioux City talk radio host Sam Clovis, who may have contributed to Santorum's victory in that critical northwest Iowa county. Santorum also won the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a former candidate for governor who led the campaign to oust three state Supreme Court judges who backed a decision to allow gay marriage in 2010.
The economy and the federal budget deficit were top issues for caucus attendees, according to entrance polls. However, the state's evangelical voters and strong conservatives tilted toward Santorum, the polls showed.
Although Santorum collected big pieces of the splintered social conservative coalition in the closing days of the campaign, he also benefited from the backing of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who was elected in 2010 and is popular with the tea party.
Santorum also had the early support of Nick Ryan, a former congressional chief of staff and campaign operative, who started a super PAC for Santorum and was the first to advertise on his behalf – although not until December.
Santorum has a tougher hill ahead in New Hampshire than Romney, who leads there in the polls, has vastly more money and has a more natural home with the state's economic conservatives than Santorum, more identified as a social conservative.
Although Santorum has been to New Hampshire 30 times, he probably won't be able to build the same kind of grassroots network he achieved in Iowa before the primary is held on Jan. 10.
In Iowa, Romney avoided disappointing. In his speech in Des Moines late Tuesday he pointed out how much leaner his campaign was in 2012 than in 2008.
Five staff, instead of 52. Less than $2 million spent, compared with $10 million four years ago.
He spent most of 2011 playing down how well he would need to do in Iowa. In 2008, after spending more than 100 days and $10 million in the state, he finished a disappointing second.
"It's great that in the heartland, a campaign begins," Romney said before he was declared the winner, vowing "to make sure that we make sure we restore the heart and soul of the entire nation."
The outcome raises the bar for Romney in New Hampshire. His campaign has prepared for that challenge, long saying they need to win in order to continue to the GOP nomination.
Unlike Iowa, where Romney's support was steady without dominating, he has maintained a strong lead in New Hampshire for months.
His Iowa strategy was to project himself as a national candidate and emerge ahead of those viewed as potential national rivals, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Although he focused more on Obama than any of his rivals, Romney did sponsor automated telephone calls attacking Perry's immigration positions. He later went after Gingrich on immigration and his temperament.
But Romney got a lot of help – almost $3 million in advertising – from a super PAC friendly to his campaign and run by former campaign aides.
Most of the ads fiercely attacked Gingrich, and his standing tumbled quickly. That gave Santorum an opening to rise and challenge Romney.