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Santorum now main Republican rival

Rick Santorum is poised to establish himself as the top conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, after jolting the Republican US presidential race by coming within eight votes of winning the Iowa caucuses.

Mr Romney barely defeated Mr Santorum in Iowa, where the party held its first contest in the race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama. Until recently, Mr Santorum had been polling in the low single digits and was seen as having little hope of being a top contender.

Mr Romney's win helped solidify his standing as front-runner going into next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, where he is heavily favoured. But he has not been able to raise his support beyond the 25% level in national opinion polls. He won just under 25% of the vote in Iowa.

Some Republicans see Mr Romney as insufficiently conservative on abortion, healthcare and other issues. As other conservative candidates drop out, that could create an opening for Mr Santorum, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage.

The Republican field narrowed on Wednesday with Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race after coming last in Iowa.

But Mr Santorum has significant hurdles to climb if he hopes to prove that he is not the latest in a series of challengers who briefly topped polls only to fade quickly - like Ms Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.

After hinting that he might drop out, Mr Perry announced he would stay in the race. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses hoping to make his mark in the New Hampshire primary.

It will be difficult for Mr Santorum to recreate his success in Iowa, where he had campaigned almost non-stop for months. He has only a skeleton staff in other states and very little money.

Mr Romney is much better placed in terms of campaign staff and financing. He has campaigned as the candidate best positioned to defeat Mr Obama. On Thursday he gained the endorsement of the party's 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain.

But there are indications that help is on the way for Mr Santorum. He has already seen a surge in online donations, which crippled his campaign's website shortly after the Iowa results were announced. Campaign manager Mike Biundo said the campaign's fundraising pace has tripled over the last week.

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