Just eight votes separated Mitt Romney and a surging social conservative Rick Santorum in Iowa, setting the stage for a drawn out GOP race for the presidential nomination that may last well into Spring.

That is, unless Romney makes a statement this month, starting with New Hampshire next week.

“Most people expect Romney to win in New Hampshire; the only question is his margin,” said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William Galston. “If he goes on to win in South Carolina, the race is likely to be wrapped up by the end of the month. If he loses there and in Florida, it'll go on at least through March.”

About 122 thousand voters turned out for the Iowa caucuses, similar to the 2008 showing when another social conservative, Mike Huckabee, jumped into the lead with 34 percent of the vote.

“I don't expect Santorum to do much better than Huckabee in New Hampshire, and his only chance in South Carolina is to go one-on-one against Romney, which I don't think is going to happen,” said Galston.

Ron Paul finished a close third in Iowa, followed by Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. Michele Bachmann suspended her campaign today after finishing sixth.

Galston noted that while Iowa has a relatively small minority population and a lower unemployment rate, the caucuses do reward face-to-face campaigning, reducing the impact of money. Because caucus voters are required to physically show up on location at a specific time, caucuses tend to have a lower turnout, but bring out the most intense voters, he said.