WEST DES MOINES, Iowa - Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum were locked in a tight battle as voters met across this largely rural state on Tuesday in the first contest to determine a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama.
Partial returns from the state Republican Party showed the three candidates winning roughly 23 percent of the vote each with about 22 percent of precincts reporting.
The months-long campaign has been marked by volatility. Romney is a favorite of the party's business wing, while Santorum appeared to be consolidating the state's large bloc of Christian conservatives. Paul has drawn a passionate following among libertarians and younger voters.
Iowa's caucuses are known more for weeding out candidates than picking the future president but a strong finish here could provide a big boost in the state-by-state battle to choose the Republican to stand against Obama in the Nov. 6 election.