DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Barack Obama swept to victory in the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, pushing Hillary Clinton to third place and taking a major stride in a historic bid to become the nation’s first black president. 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, 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.’”
Nearly complete returns showed the first-term lawmaker gaining 37 percent support. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina appeared headed for second place, relegating Clinton, the former first lady, to a close third.
Huckabee celebrated his own victory over Mitt Romney and a crowded Republican field. “A new day is needed in American politics, just like a new day is needed in American government,” the former Arkansas governor told cheering supporters. “It starts here but it doesn’t end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Huckabee, a preacher turned politician, handily defeated Romney despite being outspent by millions of dollars and deciding in the campaign’s final days to scrap television commercials that would have assailed the former Massachusetts governor. His triumph 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.
With the New Hampshire primary only five days distant, Clinton and Edwards vowed to fight on in the race for the Democratic nomination.
“We have always planned to run a national campaign,” the former first lady told supporters at a noisy rally attended by her husband and their daughter, Chelsea. “I am so ready for the rest of this campaign, and I am so ready to lead.”
Edwards, the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee, said he would distinguish himself from Obama in New Hampshire by arguing that he is the candidate who can deliver the change that voters have shown they want. “I“m going to fight for that change,” he said. “I’ve fought for it my entire life. I have a long history of fighting powerful interests and winning.”
Not everyone was going on. Officials said Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware were leaving the race after failing to generate appreciable support in Iowa.
Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee 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.
Projections estimated that 220,588 Democrats showed up, shattering the previous mark of 124,000.
Turnout was also up on the Republican side, where projections showed about 114,000 people taking part. The last previous contested Republican caucuses in 2000 drew 87,666 participants.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 Huckabe 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.
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.