CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / AP Enlarge
DES MOINES, Iowa Sen. Barack Obama, bidding to become the nation s first black president, swept to victory in the Iowa caucuses Thursday night over Hillary Cllinton and a high-powered Democratic field. Mike Huckabee rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to win the opening round among Republicans in the 2008 campaign for the White House.
Obama, 46 and a first-term senator from Illinois, scored his victory on a message of change in Washington. Nearly complete returns showed him gaining 37 percent support from Iowans.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina appeared headed for second place, relegating Clinton, the former first lady, to a close third.
Huckabee, a preacher turned politician, handily defeated Mitt Romney despite being outspent by tens of millions of dollars and deciding in the campaign s final days to scrap television commercials that would have assailed the former Massachusetts governor.
Huckabee s triumph was more robust than Obama s. He was winning 34 percent support, compared to 25 percent for Romney. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain battled for third place.
Clinton called Obama to congratulate him, aides said. Her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, vowed, This race begins tonight and ends when Democrats throughout America have their say. Our campaign was built for a marathon and we have the resources to run a national race in the weeks ahead.
Edwards told The Associated Press in an interview he would fight on in New Hampshire, which holds the nation s first primary on Jan. 8.
Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, by more than 20 points a few weeks ago. I ve been pleased that I ve been able to make up ground and I intend to keep making up ground, not just here but across the country, he said.
The words were brave, but already, his strategy of bankrolling a methodical campaign in hopes of winning the first two states was in tatters and a rejuvenated McCain was tied with him in the polls in next-up New Hampshire.
Iowans rendered their judgments in meetings at 1,781 precincts from Adel to Zwingle, in schools, firehouses and community centers where the candidates themselves could not follow.
In interviews as they entered the caucuses, more than half of all the Republicans said they were either born-again or evangelical Christians, and they liked Huckabee more than any of his rivals. Romney led handily among the balance of the Iowa Republican voters, according to the survey.
About half the Democratic caucus-goers said a candidate s ability to bring about needed change was the most important factor as they made up their minds, according to the entrance interviews by the AP and the television networks. Change was Obama s calling card in the arduous campaign for Iowa s backing.
Obama also outpolled Clinton among women, and benefited from a surge in first-time caucus-goers. More than half of those who participated said they had never been to a caucus before, and Obama won the backing of roughly 40 percent of them. Edwards did best among veteran caucus-goers, garnering 30 percent of their vote. Obama and Clinton each got about a quarter of their support.
An AP analysis showed Huckabee had won at least 22 delegates to the party nominating convention next summer, with 15 yet to be allocated among the contenders.
Obama won 13 Democratic delegates, Clinton and Edwards 11 each, with 10 still to be allocated.
While Republicans and Democrats both looked to Iowa to pass the first judgment of the election year, there was a key difference in the way they ran their caucuses.
Republicans took a straw vote, then tallied the results. Democrats had a more complicated process in which one candidate s supporters might eventually wind up backing another contender.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards had all urged voters to consider them if their own candidate fell short. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio publicly urged his backers to line up with Obama on a second round, and two Democrats said aides to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did likewise as the caucuses unfolded. Those two spoke on condition of anonymity, citing private discussions.
The Democratic race was as close as the Republican contest was not.
Obama and Clinton each sought to make history, he the most viable black presidential candidate in history, she a former first lady bidding to become the first female commander in chief. Edwards battled them to a standstill, fighting to improve on the second-place finish in the 2004 caucuses that was good enough to land him the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket.
Their rivals, Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Richardson and Kucinich, got little to show for their effort, and it seemed possible the field would grow smaller before New Hampshire votes on Tuesday.
With President Bush constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, both parties had wide-open, costly campaigns.
Obama, a first-term senator, stressed a need for change. Clinton boasted of her experience as she worked to follow her husband into the White House. Edwards cast himself as the implacable enemy of special interests as he aimed to improve on last time s second-place showing in the state.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, stressed his background as a businessman and organizer of the 2002 Olympics, and he worked to persuade conservatives to ignore his earlier positions on abortion and gay rights. He ran the only commercials of the campaign critical of a rival, hitting Huckabee for his positions on immigration and the pardons he issued while governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, pinned his hopes on evangelical conservatives.
Arizona Sen. McCain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Tennessee Sen. Thompson were also on the ballot, although their aides made no claim they were in the running for a first-place finish. So, too, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who largely abandoned the state in the campaign s final days.
At stake Thursday night in Iowa were 45 delegates to the Democratic National Convention next summer in Denver and 37 to the GOP gathering in St. Paul, Minn. But that was hardly the reason the crowded field of presidential hopefuls devoted weeks of campaigning, built muscular campaign organizations and spent millions of dollars on television advertising in the state.
For three decades, Iowa s caucuses have drawn presidential hopefuls eager to make a strong first impression, and this year was no different.
Obama, Clinton and Edwards spent at least $19 million on television advertising among them, and all three capped their campaigns with statewide broadcasts on Wednesday. Romney told supporters in a final daylong swing around the state he had been in 68 of 99 counties since he began his quest for the White House, had spent 55 days in Iowa and spoken before 248 separate audiences.
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