DES MOINES, Iowa — Once written off as a long-shot, former senator Rick Santorum almost rode his Christian conservative platform to victory in Iowa, scoring an upset likely to reshape the Republican field.
Coming from way behind in the opinion polls just days ago, Santorum battled to a virtual dead-heat to take second place, losing by just eight votes to Mitt Romney in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, and putting a dent in the former Massachusetts governor's air of invincibility.
"Game On!" challenged a beaming Santorum late Tuesday, after criss-crossing the state to pull off a stunning victory in the Republicans' first nominating battle on the road to 2012 presidential elections.
His consistent message of "Family, Faith and Freedom" appears to have found a ready audience among Iowa's influential evangelical voters.
Trumpeting his better-than-expected finish, Santorum's campaign will now benefit from a huge psychological boost, as he is thrust into the media spotlight, helping tap funds vital to keeping his White House bid alive.
In an intensely personal and emotional speech to his supporters, Santorum drew on his roots among the Pennsylvania steel mills and his grandfather's struggle digging in the coal mines after emigrating from Italy.
A devout Catholic, he also spoke of his seriously ill youngest daughter, Isabella Maria, who suffers from a disability due to a genetic disorder, and has defied the odds to survive to the age of three.
"Ask me what motivates me, it's been the dignity of every human life," Santorum said, adding: "Whether it's sanctity of life in the womb or the dignity of every working person in America to fulfill their potential, you will have a friend in Rick Santorum."
But doubts remain whether Santorum has the organizational ability and political chops to defeat Romney in the long state-by-state nominating process to secure the Republican Party crown.
The youthful 53-year-old, a father of seven who has been married to his wife Karen for 21 years, had struggled early in his quest to be the Republican Party challenger to take on President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in November.
Lacking national name recognition -- despite being first elected to the House of Representatives for Pennsylvania in 1990 and then serving two terms in the US Senate from 1995 to 2007 -- Santorum has been something of a dark horse.
Liberal opponents have derided him as an ultra-religious, anti-gay creationist who has equated homosexuality with incest and pedophilia, but Santorum plays his social and fiscal conservatism as trump cards.
He has touted himself as "the conservative alternative" to the more moderate Romney and labeled himself a political bomb-thrower "when bombs need to be thrown."
And his staunch pro-life position and opposition to gay marriage have won admirers among conservative Americans, mistrustful of Romney's perceived "flip-flopping" on such issues and suspicious of his Mormon faith.
The Washington Post even wrote that "Rick Santorum was a tea-party kind of guy before the tea-party even existed."
Santorum's Iowa result propels him full steam into New Hampshire's key January 10 primary, and will likely force other struggling conservative contenders, such as Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry, to rethink their campaigns.
Perry said late Tuesday he would return to Texas to "assess" the way forward.
Along the way, Santorum has picked up some diverse endorsements. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch urged Iowans to back him on Monday.
"Can't resist this tweet, but all Iowans think about Rick Santorum. Only candidate with genuine big vision for country," Murdoch said on his Twitter feed.
And America's well-known Christian religious family, the Duggars, who star in their TV reality show "19 kids and counting," also threw their support behind Santorum.
"Rick Santorum has great family values. He's pro-life. He's good when it comes to the economy. Just a great all-around conservative guy," family patriarch Jim Bob Duggar said.
But whether Santorum's connection with Iowa voters will be enough to sustain his campaign across the country as he chases the Republican party nomination remains to be seen.
Iowa has a history of cruelly raising a candidate's hopes, only for them to be dashed within weeks.
The Duggar family also backed ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, who took Iowa in 2008, thanks in large part to the born-again Christian vote. But by March Huckabee had crashed out, handing the party baton to John McCain.
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