DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Sen. Barack Obama, bidding to become the nation’s first black president, captured the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, opening test in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Mike Huckabee rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to victory in the Republican caucuses.
Obama, 46 and a first-term senator from Illinois, eased past a high-powered field that included Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the former first lady, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Among Republicans, Huckabee, a preacher turned politician, handily defeated Mitt Romney despite being outspent by tens of millions of dollars, and deciding in the campaign’s final days to scrap television commercials that would have assailed the former Massachusetts governor.
Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of change in Washington, was gaining 36 percent support among Democrats., Edwards, who ran promising to battle the special interests in the capital, and Clinton, who stressed her experience, both were drawing about 30 percent.
Huckabee’s triumph was more robust. He was winning 34 percent support, compared to 25 percent for Romney. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain battled for third place.
Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, 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.
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 Huckabee 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 Associated Press and the television networks. Change was Obama’s calling card in the arduous campaign for Iowa’s backing. Fewer voters cited experience, which Clinton said was her strong suit, or a candidate’s chance of capturing the White House or ability to care about people like the voters themselves.