Vote by precious vote, Romney and Santorum battled in Iowa's GOP presidential caucuses, the opening round in the race to pick a challenger to face President Barack Obama in the fall.
Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said Romney had 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win.
Late into the night, returns showed Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, in a near dead heat.
It was a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.
Despite admitting Monday to not seeing himself in the White House in the near future, Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished third.
ABC News reports more independents than usual turned out in the preliminary entrance poll results, helping elevate the libertarian-leaning candidate. He kept pace early in the voting but ultimately finished with about 21 percent of the votes. He vowed to carry the fight to New Hampshire's primary next week and beyond.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished fourth with 13 percent of the votes.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth with 10 percent of the votes, told supporters he would return home to Texas to reassess his candidacy.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was a distant sixth with 5 percent of the votes, but assured her supporters she would carry on.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finished with 1 percent of votes and said he is instead focusing on New Hampshire.
On the last day of the caucus and campaigning, Perry was present in an attempt to reclaim his standings after falling from the top tier of GOP candidates.
Like many contenders, some campaign mistakes and a strong push from opponents put him down in the polling.
Perry told supporters the election is about stopping the president of the United States. He accused President Barack Obama of abusing the Constitution.
Front-runner Romney also kept up his attacks on the president. In an early morning rally, Romney accused Obama of wanting to turn America into a welfare state and said Obama is out.
However, Romney did say Tuesday morning that he was no longer confident in his initial prediction of a first-place finish.
"It's hard to predict exactly what's going to happen," Romney said on MSNBC. "I think I'll be among the top group."
Santorum was surging in the Iowa poll. He is in the top three and is counting on his conservative Evangelical credentials to preserve his place. Santorum has visited all 99 counties in Iowa.
Paul still has his firm supporters and they believe he might take his anti-establishment message for a win, but he admitted Monday he didn't believe he would be president in the near future.
Yet, neither candidate appears as a serious long haul threat to Romney, considering the presence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Former front-runner Gingrich predicted an upset. He accused Romney of being a liar who could not be trusted as president.
Iowa caucus voting began at 7 p.m. CST
The Associated Press contributed to this report.