So much for conventional wisdom.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts scored a solid victory in the Iowa caucuses Monday night, upending expectations and resuscitating a candidacy pundits pronounced all but dead a month ago.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, whose candidacy was considered a long shot until just two weekends ago, finished a close second.
Former governor Howard Dean of Vermont trailed far behind, followed by Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. The two were tied for the lead in polls as recently as two weeks ago and were expected to excel in Iowa thanks to the organizational muscle of their campaigns. Gephardt gave preliminary indications Monday night that he was withdrawing from the race (see “In Wake Of Iowa Loss, Dick Gephardt Bows Out Of Presidential Race”).
"Thank you Iowa for making me the comeback Kerry," a clearly ecstatic Kerry told supporters in Des Moines late Monday night.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Kerry was slated to receive the support of 38 percent of Iowa's state Democratic Party delegates with Edwards not far behind at 32 percent. Dean received 18 percent followed by Gephardt at 11 percent. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio finished last with 1 percent.
Kerry succeeded by focusing on domestic issues such as a lack of good jobs and affordable health care while emphasizing his personal history as a decorated Vietnam veteran. But more surprising was the role the youth vote played in Kerry's victory. According to an entrance survey by the National Election Pool, 17 percent of all caucus-goers were between the ages of 17 and 29. And, contrary to the popular wisdom that Dean had the youth vote locked, they came out voting for Kerry. According to the same poll, 35 percent of these voters intended to vote for Kerry, while only 25 percent said they would back Dean.
"We came from behind and we came for the fight," he said Monday. "Now I have a special message for the special interests that have a home in the White
House: We're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out."
For Edwards, Monday's results served as a shot in the arm and proof that his message of class-based populism and sunny optimism was connecting. The North Carolinian has largely declined to attack his Democratic rivals so far.
"The people of Iowa tonight confirmed that they believe in a positive, uplifting message to change America," he told jubilant supporters in Des Moines.
Monday's results may have been a bitter pill to swallow for Dean. The former Vermont governor led or was near the front of the pack in polls since the fall but appeared to stumble in recent weeks as the national media trained its spotlight on him. He also came under withering attacks from rivals.
But Dean displayed little sign of disappointment in an appearance before wildly enthusiastic supporters in Des Moines.
"We have just begun to fight," he said.
Regarding his rivals, he added, "We will see them around the corner on the other side of the block starting tomorrow morning."
The Iowa results by no means spell the end of the Dean candidacy. The former Vermont governor has raised more funds than any other Democrat and has been airing advertisements in states with upcoming primaries. His army of mostly young volunteers, dubbed the "Deaniacs," should be a heavy and formidable presence in New Hampshire, which votes on January 27.
Under Iowa caucus rules, registered Democrats gathered in schools, community centers, libraries and other public facilities to back their candidate of choice Monday night. The Iowa Democratic Party then allotted a given number of delegates to its party convention based on the amount of support each candidate received.
The caucus process is routinely time-intensive. As a result, voter participation is traditionally fairly low, which favors campaigns with the best ability to mobilize supporters. This year, Dean and Gephardt were assumed to have the edge in organization. Dean's Internet-coordinated support was expected to help him carry the day.
Gephardt's strong backing from organized labor groups was supposed to have given him a boost. He won Iowa in 1988, the last time he sought the presidency.
On Monday night, he made no attempt to spin what was clearly a disappointing result.
"Life will go on because this campaign was never about me," he told supporters. "It was about all of us."
Gephardt focused his campaign on bread-and-butter economic issues and repeatedly emphasized that he was the only major candidate to oppose major trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. "The fight for working people is in my bones," he said Monday. "America's workers are what make this country what it is."
What impact, if any, Monday's results will have in determining who will become the Democratic nominee for president remains to be seen.
In 1976, Iowa helped vault then former governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter onto the national stage when he finished second in the caucuses. Carter went on to defeat President Gerald Ford that November.
But in other years, Iowa's results have proved little more than an anomaly. In 1980, George Herbert Walker Bush narrowly beat out Ronald Reagan in the state's Republican caucuses. Reagan went on to defeat Jimmy Carter and take the White House.
Then in 1988, Christian fundamentalist Rev. Pat Robertson surprised the pundits and embarrassed Bush by finishing ahead of the then vice president. Bush went on to win the nomination and the White House that year, however.
The top three finishers in Iowa left the state late Monday night and were expected to make appearances in New Hampshire on Tuesday. In addition, General Wesley Clark of Arkansas and Senator Joseph Lieberman, who both bypassed the Iowa caucuses to devote resources to the Granite State, will continue to campaign hard there. Polls in New Hampshire showed Dean's once-commanding lead shrinking fast with support for Clark and Kerry growing.
The campaign then heads south with primaries or caucuses in South Carolina, Missouri, Virginia and Oklahoma on February 3. Arizona, Delaware, New Mexico and North Dakota all hold contests that day as well.