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Thank you, Iowa, for a thrilling opener to the 2012 presidential election!

Drum roll, please. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney eked out an eight-vote victory over former Sen. Rick Santorum, 24.6 percent to 24.5 percent. Rep. Ron Paul came in third at 21.5 percent.

Voters over 50 dominated the caucuses, accounting for six in 10 votes. Those 50 to 64 split their votes between Romney and Santorum. Of those over 65, 33 percent preferred Romney; Santorum was second choice, at 20 percent. Younger voters, ages 17 to 39, resoundingly supported Paul, who is 76. That’s an astonishing generational split.

Romney supporters are ecstatic, because he came in second here in 2008 and mostly ignored the state until other candidates fell by the wayside. He’s the favorite in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 10.

Mitt Romney edges Rick Santorum in Iowa caucuses. IowaPolitics.com

Santorum barely registered until his rocket rise in Iowa. He will likely skip New Hampshire, a moderate state with few evangelicals, and move on to South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21. Quick bio: 53, social and fiscal conservative, former Pennsylvania lawmaker drubbed out of office in 2006, a lawyer in Washington since then.

Here’s how it went down, according to entrance polls by the TV networks:

  • Tea party supporters and evangelicals supported Santorum. Far and away the most important issue to Iowa Republicans was the economy, and Romney carried the day with them. Those who cited the federal budget deficit as their top issue preferred Paul.
  • Republican caucus-goers said the most important quality in a candidate is the ability to defeat President Obama. For this task, they said Romney was the best choice.

“The conventional wisdom here is there are three airplane tickets out of Iowa” for GOP presidential contenders, according to Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt. “The first, second or third placing candidate will do well in New Hampshire and go on to get the nomination of the party.”

Those tickets go to Romney, Santorum and Paul.

The others? Newt Gingrich got 13 percent, Rick Perry 10 percent, Michele Bachmann 5 percent and Jon Huntsman less than 1 percent.