Obama Wins the First Battle as Republicans Fight for Nomination; as Republicans in the US Begin to Decide Who They Want to Take on Barack Obama in This Year's Presidential Elections, Political Editor DAVID WILLIAMSON Takes a Look at the Likely Leading Candidates - and the Issues That Will Decide the Winner

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Byline: DAVID WILLIAMSON

* HE biggest winner to emerge from the first formal stage of the process to choose a Republican candidate for the White House was ... Democrat President Barack Obama.

The results of the Iowa caucus show that Mitt Romney - who won by just eight votes - cannot expect a coronation and a long, expensive and bruising fight for the Republican crown lies ahead.

Mr Romney, a former governor of the famously liberal state of Massachusetts, failed to win the trust and support of social conservatives who embraced ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

The tone of the contest is growing harsher. Recent front-runner Newt Gingrich, one of the most prominent Republican congressmen in the 1990s, was torpedoed by millions of dollars' worth of negative advertisements paid for by Romney supporters.

The most recent Gallup poll showed he had 23% support compared to Romney's 26%. Gingrich is unlikely to withdraw in a hurry and the early signs are that he is now a dangerous foe.

He responded to his fourth place finish, saying: "Together I think we survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary."

In a clear sign that the gloves are coming off, he said: "We will have one other great debate and that is whether this party wants a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the 1980s... Somebody who is into changing Washington or we want a Massachusetts moderate who in fact would be pretty good at managing the decay but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any ability to change the culture, or change the political structure, or change the government."

Romney is almost certain to enjoy a resounding victory on January 10 in the New Hampshire primary but he will face a major challenge in South Carolina on January 21.

The state is home to many social conservatives who are wary of Mr Romney's past stances on abortion, gay rights and government-supported healthcare.

A showdown in such a state in which Romney is tarred as the "liberal" candidate will further weaken his standing with conservative Republicans.

This will mean that if he is eventually chosen as the candidate to challenge Obama the party will struggle to coax many voters to the polls for the general election on November 6.

Prof Jon Roper, an expert in US politics at Swansea University, said: "This is going to go on to April-time at a minimum, during which the Republicans are going to be knocking bits off each other and Obama can sit back."

Romney tried and failed to win the nomination in 2008. Then, he was beaten in Iowa by a charismatic country-singing Baptist pastor and former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee.

This time, with the conservative vote split between several candidates, he might have hoped to win a greater share of support but he again won just 25% of the vote.

Obama will be heartened that the rival party has already violated Ronald Reagan's mantra: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

The party also appears to have switched a traditional focus on finding the most electable candidate for a search for the one with the purest ideology. This is a rejection of conservative icon William F Buckley's rule: Support the most conservative candidate who is electable.

Romney now takes the position that "abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother" and he has pledged to defend the definition of marriage as "the joining together of one man and one woman".

But his moderate image, instead of being seen as a way to win votes beyond Republican ranks, has attracted vociferous opposition.

Obama can also take comfort that despite common perceptions of widespread disillusionment with his administration turnout in the Iowa caucus did not surge.

Philip Klein commented in the Washington Examiner: "Four years ago, Democrats were frothing at the mouth to win back the White House after two terms of President Bush. …