Storming to victory on the wings of a call for change, Illinois Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic Iowa caucus on Thursday. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Obama took the first contest of the presidential race with 38 percent of the vote, outpacing former South Carolina Senator John Edwards and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who got 30 and 29 percent.And with 95 percent of precincts reporting, CNN projected that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will win the Republican Iowa caucus with 34 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who conceded. CNN reported historic turnouts of 220,000 Democrats and 114,000 Republicans, both believed to be records.
Standing at a podium emblazoned with a banner that read "change," in front of a large crowd of supporters clearly electrified by his win, Obama spoke in a carefully measured cadence that was part sermon, part victory speech.
"They said this day would never come," he told the audience. "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."
The win by Obama, a black candidate, in what CNN analyst Jack Cafferty called "the whitest place outside of the North Pole," dealt a major blow to the campaign of Clinton, who had been the presumptive front-runner for much of the year. The lead on the Democratic side had shifted repeatedly among the top three candidates over the course of Thursday evening, but as predicted, Obama appeared to have tapped into a wellspring of support among first-time caucus-goers and younger voters.
CNN's entrance poll analysis showed that among voters 17-29 years old, Obama got 57 percent of the vote, while Clinton, who conceded to Obama, did not finish among the top three in that category. In the crucial independent segment of voters — which make up almost a quarter of voters in Iowa — Obama had 41 percent backing to Clinton's 17 percent.
The rest of the Democratic field failed to sway a significant portion of the electorate, with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson pulling just 2 percent of voters and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden clocking in at 1 percent. The bottom tier of Democratic candidates — Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich — failed to gain any percentage of the vote at press time. According to CNN, Biden and Dodd announced as the caucus results were coming in that they would be abandoning their bids for the Democratic nomination.
With action star and fervent supporter Chuck Norris over his shoulder, Huckabee beamed as he discussed his unlikely win in Iowa.
"We didn't know how this was going to turn out tonight, but I knew one thing: I would be forever grateful to the people that I met. The ones who voted for me, even the ones who didn't," Huckabee said.
"Tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics. A new day is needed in American politics, just as a new day is needed in American government. And tonight it starts here in Iowa, but it doesn't end here, it goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue [the address of the White House] one year from now."
Among Republicans, Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson were tied for a distant third, at 13 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who hardly campaigned in the state, came in at a disappointing sixth in the field, pulling just 4 percent of the vote, trailing long-shot anti-war candidate Ron Paul, who took 10 percent of the vote.
In a speech given by Edwards before the final results were in, he said the one thing that was clear from his second-place finish was that "the status quo lost and change won ... and now we move on."
Clearly energized by his finish, Edwards added, "What we've seen here in Iowa is ... two candidates who thought their money would make them inevitable. But what the Iowa caucus-goers have shown is [they are looking for someone] to have a little backbone, to have a little courage, to speak for the middle class, to speak for those who have no voice.
"If you're willing to stand up to corporate greed, that message and the American people are unstoppable, no matter how much money is spent."
A smiling Clinton, surrounded by daughter Chelsea, and husband and former president Bill Clinton, had to shout down chants of "Hillary!" She said the unprecedented turnout in Iowa sent a clear message that "we are going to have change, and that change is going to be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009." It was a "great night for Democrats," she said.
Clinton congratulated Obama and Edwards and then, standing under a huge banner that read "Ready for Change! Ready to Lead!," used the occasion as another opportunity to bring up the message she has repeatedly stressed as the key to winning the long race for the presidency: "How we will win in November 2008 is by nominating a candidate who will be able to go the distance and who will be the best president on day one. I am ready for that contest."
As for the Democratic victor, Obama is the first black presidential candidate to win the Iowa caucus and the most viable black candidate from any party with a chance to win the presidency in history. But even amid his historic victory, he did not make race an issue but stuck to his call for substantive political change and the power of unity over division.
"In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans and Independents to stand up and say that we are one nation, we are one people and our time for change has come!" he said during a fiery call to arms that could well be remembered as his "this was the moment" speech for the repeated refrain of that emotionally charged phrase. "We are choosing hope over fear. We're choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America. ... This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was the inevitable.
"This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long ... when we finally gave Americans who never participated in politics a reason to stand up and do so."
Just as the Iowa defeat was a major blow to Clinton's campaign, which is among the most well-financed of all the candidates, the come-from-behind win by Huckabee came despite a huge outlay of cash by Romney in Iowa. Huckabee, a Baptist minister who was polling in the low single digits just six months ago, appeared to have appealed to the all-important segment of Christian conservative voters in Iowa, some of whom may have shied away from casting their lot with Romney, who is a member of the Mormon church, which some evangelicals view with skepticism. According to CNN, entrance polls showed that more than 60 percent of Republicans who caucused were evangelicals.
Speaking to CNN from Florida, Giuliani congratulated Huckabee, admitted that he didn't campaign very hard in Iowa and emphasized that he has been putting his focus on 29 different states, specifically Florida, which his campaign has said he is expecting to win later in the month. "Some people have paid a lot of resources to one state. We've kind of spread it out," Giuliani said. "We're ready for whatever the outcome is."
The loss in Iowa is not a death blow for Romney — who has already spent $40 million of his own money on the campaign and outspent the poorly funded Huckabee by more than four to one, according to The New York Times — but it does now put him into a more intense battle in the upcoming New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. There, he is expected to go head to head with McCain, who has lavished more of his attention in that state, where he is fast gaining on Romney.
The message of experience that has been the most frequent talking point from Clinton, who has often spoken on the campaign trail about what she would do when she is president, appeared to have lost out to Obama's message of change and fresh blood. CNN predicted that if Obama could ride Thursday's surge into New Hampshire, where the two candidates are currently in a dead heat, the once seemingly unstoppable Clinton political machine could be in serious trouble.
[This story originally published at 10:09 p.m. ET on 01.03.2008]