It was the night of the insurgents. Whether Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama can carry their dramatic victories in the Iowa caucuses all the way to their parties' nominations will not be known for weeks or perhaps months. What is certain is that neither the Republican nor the Democratic presidential races will ever be the same after Thursday night.
In the subdued ballroom of the Hotel Ft. Des Moines--Hillary Clinton's headquarters--the air of certainty that once surrounded her campaign melted away entirely. The New York senator's supporters were forced to absorb the news that what they feared would be a narrow Obama victory had become a convincing win, leaving her not even in second place--but third. Among the Republicans, Mike Huckabee's dramatic surge in the polls over the last six weeks--his leap from dark horse to front-runner--was signed and sealed by Iowa voters, who gave him a 34 percent to 25 percent win over big-spending Mitt Romney. "The one thing that's clear," said second-place Democratic finisher John Edwards, summing things up for the entire field, "is the status quo lost and change won."
Or at least the perception of change won. Clinton tried to make the case that she was the Democratic candidate who would most make a difference in Washington. Iowa caucusgoers seemed to disagree resoundingly, resurrecting all the old questions about whether anti-Clinton sentiment in the country remains too strong to make her president. The voters decisively preferred Obama, who's been a U.S. senator for only two years, by 38 percent to Hillary's 29 percent, with Edwards finishing at 30 percent, according to early returns. A pumped-up Obama called his victory a "defining moment in history." Sounding at times like a revivalist preacher, the Illinois legislator told a packed house of delirious supporters: "They said this day would never come … You showed that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it."
Clinton, in her concession speech, sought to be magnanimous even as she harked anew to the theme of change, in what could be an early sign of a shift in emphasis headed into the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. Referring to the "unprecedented turnout," Clinton declared: "We are sending a clear message that we are going to have change and that change will be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009." But she also returned to her traditional theme: that only she can win the marathon that "the rest of this campaign" will entail, and that experience still makes a difference. "How will we win in November 2008? By nominating a candidate who can go the distance and who will be president on day one," Clinton said to forced cheers from the disappointed crowd.
Going into New Hampshire and the blizzard of primaries to follow, Clinton aides hope for a reprise of the Bill story: Comeback Kid II. "She's got to turn the tide where Bill turned the tide," says one adviser, not authorized to speak on the record about strategy. The Clinton campaign is pinning its hopes on Nevada, which votes Jan 19, California and other "Super Tuesday" states where her operation is far stronger than it was in Iowa.
On the GOP side, Huckabee's folksy ease and humor on the trail--and his preacher's ease in speaking about his evangelical Christian faith against Romney's hesitant handling of his Mormonism--seemed to weigh heavily in his favor. "What we saw was a very big turnout in areas that would be favorable to Mike Huckabee," conceded Kevin Madden, Romney's spokesman. "Obviously in some western parts of the state … there is a large evangelical portion of the base vote that seemed to really identify with Mike Huckabee." Huckabee was humbled by his victory but no less confident that he'd end up at "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a year from now."
"What we have is a new day in American politics... it starts here," the candidate said in his victory address, adding that "the first thing we've learned is that people really are more important than the purse…. I hope we will forever change the American political system." (The comment was a barely-veiled shot at the former Massachusetts governor, who outspent Huckabee roughly 20 to 1)
Even Romney spun his second-place finish as evidence that people are tired of Washington politics as usual. In Iowa, "we heard something time and time again. People feel that Washington is broken. That Washington just can't get the job done," Romney said. "And Iowa said that tonight … On the Democratic side, a new face, Barack Obama. On our side the top two contenders here, the top two finishers, both people from outside Washington. You're gonna see change in Washington because America recognizes that we're not gonna change the nation and have a bright future if we just send the same old people to Washington in just different chairs. We need new faces in Washington and I intend to be one of them."
Still, Huckabee's road to the nomination doesn't get easier from here. Heading into New Hampshire, the former governor still lacks the organization and cash-as of last week, he had just $2 million in the bank-of his rivals. And his poll numbers in the Granite State aren't great. According to a Suffolk/WHDH poll of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters (taken before the Iowa results were in), Huckabee polls at just 12 percent in the state, well behind John McCain (29 percent) and Romney (25 percent). While Huckabee may get an Iowa bounce in New Hampshire, the survey found that he had an unfavorable rating of 40 percent-the highest number of any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican. Huckabee's faith message, which scored among evangelical voters in Iowa, might not translate as well among members of New Hampshire's flinty electorate.
Among others who were not unhappy with the Iowa results: McCain, whose campaign was all but declared dead six months ago but who was battling for third place with former Sen. Fred Thompson, despite hardly campaigning in Iowa at all. Before the Iowa results, Huckabee was polling well behind in New Hampshire, the first primary state, while Romney remained a real threat to McCain. The Arizona senator hailed Huckabee's win as proof that "you can't buy an election"--Romney has poured millions into his own campaign--and that "negative campaigns don't work." That was another thinly veiled jab at Romney, who has run several attack ads targeting both McCain and Huckabee.
John Edwards' supporters, initially dejected by Obama's victory because the former North Carolina senator had spent more time in Iowa than anyone, were boosted by his apparent win over Clinton. Since Obama outspent Edwards $6.5 million to $2.7 million in Iowa, losing to him by a few percentage points is as good as a victory, said Edwards aide Joe Trippi. "We've taken the momentum from him," said Trippi. "Who knows what we could've done if we'd spent like him? If you're looking for a campaign that should be concerned tonight, go look at the Clinton campaign. I think the loser here is Hillary Clinton."
Perhaps, but Clinton won't be going away anytime soon-unlike some other other members of the Democratic field. Among the first to exit were Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, both of whom polled in single digits-well behind the top tier. Another almost certain drop-out was Rep. Duncan Hunter on the Republican side, who finished far back in the pack. A smaller field will compete in New Hampshire five days from now--but no less fiercely.