DES MOINES, Iowa — John Kerry and John Edwards rode 11th-hour surges to a one-two finish in Iowa’s kickoff presidential caucuses Monday, dealing a stunning blow to favorite Howard Dean. Kerry’s comeback blew the nomination fight wide open, setting the stage for a free-for-all in New Hampshire’s follow-up primary.
Dean finished third, stripped of his front-runner’s mantle but still defiant — “We will not give up,” he told backers.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri finished a weak fourth and planned to end his 33-year political career by pulling out of the race.
“My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end,” Gephardt said in a post-caucus speech that sounded like a political farewell.
His campaign given up for dead just weeks ago, Kerry predicted another comeback in New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary.
“As I’ve said in New Hampshire and here, I’m a fighter,” the Massachusetts lawmaker said. “I’ve come from behind before and I’m going to take the same fight that I’ve been making here to New Hampshire.”
Edwards, 50, also claimed momentum.
Just two weeks ago, before the Iowa race turned testy and tumultuous, Dean and Gephardt sat atop the field in Iowa, with Dean leading in New Hampshire and national polls. Kerry and Edwards turned that on its head, closing their campaigns with positive, forward-looking messages while Dean and Gephardt bickered over past votes and quotes.
The new day will bring new challenges for Dean. His vaunted Internet-driven organization, which helped him raise more than $40 million and dispatch 3,500 volunteers to Iowa, didn’t deliver. His anti-war, anti-establishment message didn’t resonate. His rivals — Kerry and Edwards here and Wesley Clark in New Hampshire — didn’t back down.
Indeed, Clark rose in New Hampshire polls while Dean slipped in Iowa. Now, the retired four-star Army general has turned his sights on Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
“He’s got military background, but nobody in this race has got the kind of background I’ve got,” Clark said. “It’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He’s done that. I respect that ... but I’ve got the military experience at the top as well as at the bottom.”
Kerry aides predicted a negative New Hampshire race and said they were prepared to fight blow-for-blow.
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Kerry had 37.6 percent, Edwards 31.8 percent, Dean 18 percent and Gephardt 10.6 percent. Long-shot candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was at 1.3 percent.
An AP analysis of the Iowa delegate count showed Kerry with 12 delegates, Edwards with 10 delegates and Dean with five, with 18 delegates still to be allocated.
Late-deciding voters turned away from mistake-prone Dean, and his signature position in opposition to the Iraq war did not seem to resonate. The anti-war vote split instead of rallying around Dean, an Associated Press survey found.
More than a third picked a candidate in the last week, and Kerry got the support of four in 10 of the late deciders. His last-minute surge overrode the vaunted political organizations of Dean and Gephardt. Aides to Kerry and Edwards said their positive messages contrasted with Dean and Gephardt.
“I hate mudslinging,” said Theresa Stradala, who voted for Edwards.
Stung by criticism of his record on race relations, Medicare and trade, Dean said a week ago he was tired of being the party’s “pin cushion” and suddenly looked weak to voters drawn to his blustery image.
Gephardt gambled a few days later with an ad highly critical of Dean. The front-runner’s approval rating dropped. Voters who started second-guessing Dean drifted to Edwards or Kerry. Suddenly, it was a four-way race.