By Michael A. Memoli and Paul West
January 3, 2012, 11:37 p.m.

Reporting from Manchester and Des Moines— In the closest finish in the history of the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum wound up in a virtual dead heat in the first battle for the Republican presidential nomination, with Romney emerging as the apparent winner by a margin of just eight votes.

When results from the last of the state’s 1,774 precincts were tallied Wednesday morning, Romney had 30,015 votes to Santorum’s 30,007.

Combined, the two accounted for half of the more than 120,000 votes cast at the statewide gatherings of party activists. An apparent glitch in reporting of local results held up announcement of the final result.

“We don’t know what the final vote tally is going to be, but congratulations to Rick Santorum. This has been a great victory for him and his effort,” Romney said earlier as he addressed supporters in Des Moines.

“Thank you so much, Iowa,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, told jubilant supporters in a Des Moines suburb.

According to past results provided by the Des Moines Register, the closest previous GOP caucus result came in 1980, when George H.W. Bush edged Ronald Reagan 31.6% to 29.5%.

In 1996, Bob Dole won by 3 percentage points over Pat Buchanan.

Despite the close result, there is no official provision for a recount because no delegates are at stake. The Republican vote was essentially a popularity contest among those who attended, and at some caucus sites there are no paper records of the vote.

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