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Iowa GOP Officially Declares Santorum The Iowa Caucus Winner

Rick Santorum is officially the winner of the Jan. 3 Iowa Republican presidential caucus. The state Republican Party reversed itself from a previous assertion that it would not declare one, given problems at eight precincts, as The Des Moines Register reported.

In a news release late Friday, the party said it called the race "in order to clarify conflicting reports and to affirm the results released Jan. 18 by the Republican Party of Iowa."

The preliminary count on the Jan. 3 caucus put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ahead by eight votes, as NPR reported that night. Later, the party said there was no official winner, though a recanvassing of the votes showed Santorum won by 34 votes.

We will update with more as we have it from NPR's Don Gonyea.

Update at 1:07 a.m. ET. Unexpected Confusion

Gonyea tells NPR's Newscast desk that the email was sent shortly before midnight ET. He says that just over two weeks after the actual caucus, when the votes had been certified, the state GOP "essentially called it a draw" between Romney and Santorum because of missing votes. He adds:

"This presidential campaign was already strange because of all the ups and downs — candidates taking turns being the front-runner and then being knocked down and then another one rising. But no one expected that the results of the Iowa caucuses, the very first contest, would be talked about amid such confusion for so long."

The news comes just hours before polls open for the South Carolina primary, the third Republican presidential contest.

Update at 2:13 a.m. ET. Looking Toward South Carolina

A blog post from Politico on the decision gives a glimpse into what this could mean in the context of tonight's primary:

If Mitt Romney wins South Carolina [Saturday] night, this outcome becomes less significant, since Santorum did not get a visible bounce from what was initially called as an eight-vote loss. But if Romney loses to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, he will be one for three in the early states as he heads into Florida, and each state will have had a different victor.

And it will give Santorum, who has struggled to gain traction in South Carolina but who did have a strong debate Thursday night, a reason to keep fighting past Saturday night.

Romney won the New Hampshire primary, the second contest, on Jan. 10.

Update at 11:46 a.m. ET. At Least We Know Who Lost

As many have pointed out even before Santorum was declared the winner, we'll never know which candidate actually got the most votes.

In certifying their caucus results, the Iowa GOP wrote off the those eight precincts that experienced voting irregularities. Their results will never be counted, so effectively, the true winner of the Iowa caucuses will be forever lost in the mail.

But the loser is becoming clear, as the Des Moines Register's Jason Noble says:

Such a muddled result and response threatens the already-contested legitimacy of Iowa's first-in-the-nation status and underscores the need for reforms to professionalize the voting process, political observers and party officials said.

"It's bad. It really hurts the caucuses," longtime Iowa observer David Yepsen said. "The caucuses have lots of critics, and for this to happen really jeopardizes the future of the event."

Criticism of Iowa's place on the nominating calendar has long come from other states envious of the attention it receives, and has often focused on the demographic realities that make it unrepresentative of the country as a whole.

But this year's fumbled result opens a new line of attack: that Iowa's process is amateurish, and that its results cannot be trusted.

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