Iowa: Sen. Barack Obama, bidding to become the first black president of the United States, won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, pushing Hillary Rodham Clinton to third place in the crucial opening test in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
In the Republican race, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher turned politician, rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to victory. Huckabee handily defeated Mitt Romney despite being outspent by tens of millions of dollars. Just months ago, Huckabee was virtually unknown outside Arkansas, where he had served as governor.
Obama, 46 and a first-term senator from Illinois, scored his victory with a message of change in Washington. Nearly complete returns had him gaining 37% support. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina appeared headed for second place, relegating Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, to third.
Obama told a raucous victory rally his triumph showed that in “big cities and small towns, you came together to say, ‘We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come.”’
Huckabee’s triumph was more robust than Obama’s. He was winning 34 percent support, compared to 25% for Romney. Fred Thompson, an actor and former senator, and Sen. John McCain battled for third place.
“A new day is needed in American politics, just like a new day is needed in American government,” Huckabee told cheering supporters. “It starts here, but it doesn’t end here.”
The defeats are major setbacks for Clinton and Romney, both of whom had long been front-runners in Iowa. Obama now has fresh momentum going into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where he and Clinton have been locked in a tight race. A weakened Romney could boost McCain’s hopes of winning New Hampshire, where the two have been tied in the polls. Huckabee has had little support in that northeastern US state.
The Iowa and New Hampshire contests launch an intense, five-week period that will culminate in more than two dozen contests on 5February.
With President George W. Bush, a Republican, constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, both parties had wide-open, costly campaigns. Clinton has led the Democratic race in national polls, while McCain, Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have led the Republicans nationally. Giuliani and McCain had not campaigned much in Iowa.
Democrats may have an edge in the November presidential election because of Bush’s low popularity and criticism of his handling of the Iraq war. But Iraq has not dominated the presidential campaign so far, with many voters more worried about the economy, immigration and other issues.
While most states hold primary elections, Iowa’s caucuses are a series of simultaneous evening meetings held in nearly 1,800 precincts across the state. Projections estimated that 220,588 Democrats showed up on a cold midwinter’s night, shattering the previous mark of 124,000. Turnout also was up on the Republican side, where projections showed about 114,000 people taking part. The last contested Republican caucuses, in 2000, drew 87,666 participants.
About half the Democratic caucus-goers said a candidate’s ability to bring needed change was the most important factor as they made up their minds, according to the entrance interviews by The Associated Press and the television networks. Change was Obama’s calling card in the arduous campaign for Iowa’s backing. Fewer voters cited experience, which Clinton said was her strong suit, or a candidate’s chance of capturing the White House or ability to care about people like the voters themselves.
Obama also outpolled Clinton among women, and benefited from a surge in first-time caucus-goers. More than half those who participated said they had never been to a caucus before, and Obama won the backing of roughly 40% of them. Edwards did best among veteran caucus-goers, garnering 30% of their vote. Obama and Clinton each got about a quarter of their support.
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 president. 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.
Second-tier candidates fared poorly and officials said two of them, veteran senators Joseph Biden and Chris Dodd, were ending their candidacies.