Image: Barack Obama
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., his wife Michelle and his daughters Malia, left, and Sasha celebrate victory at the Iowa caucus during a rally, on Thursday, in Des Moines, Iowa.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 1/4/2008 6:44:11 AM ET 2008-01-04T11:44:11

Sen. Barack Obama, bidding to be the first black president in American history, won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, pushing Sen. Hillary Clinton back to third place in the opening test of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to victory over Mitt Romney.

Obama, 46, 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.'"

Final Democratic returns showed the first-term lawmaker gaining 38 percent support. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gained second, barely edging out Clinton, the former first lady.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware dropped out of the Democratic race after poor showings, and Mike Gravel was expected to drop out as well. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson finished well back.

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, told The Associated Press in an interview 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 by telephone from his hotel room in Iowa. "I've fought for it my entire life."

Huckabee outspent in Iowa
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.

He stressed his religion to the extent of airing a commercial that described himself as a "Christian leader" in his race against a man seeking to become the first Mormon president.

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Nearly complete returns showed Huckabee with 34 percent support, compared with 25 percent for Romney. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain battled for third place, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul wound up fifth and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani sixth.

In his victory speech, Huckabee said the result proved that "people are more important than the purse."

"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."

Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee by more than 20 points in the polls 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.

Late Thursday, McCain congratulated Huckabee on his victory.

"I look forward to seeing him on the campaign trail, and I know that he'll continue his positive campaign," McCain said at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H.

Iowans voted in caucuses at 1,781 precincts from Adel to Zingle, in schools, firehouses and community centers.

The Iowa Democratic Party reported late Thursday that there had been a record turnout of 239,000 at the party's caucuses. In 2004, about 125,000 came out, the party said.

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.

"This is a great night for Democrats," Clinton said in her speech. "We have seen an unprecedented turnout here in Iowa, and that is good news because today 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."

Born-again element among Republicans
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 voters surveyed by NBC News and other news organizations as they entered the caucuses.

Change was Obama's calling card in the arduous campaign for Iowa's backing.

"They said this day would never come," Obama said Thursday night to cheering supporters of his bid to become the first black president. "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together. But on this January night at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."

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.

Two who won't continue
Win or lose, there was little time for rest. New Hampshire's first-in-the nation primary is set for  Tuesday, and the campaign quickly accelerates into a rush of contests culminating in more than two dozen on Feb. 5.

But Dodd and Biden won't be competing in New Hampshire.

"Tonight I am withdrawing from the presidential race, but let me assure you, we are not ending this race with our heads hanging but with our heads held high," Dodd told about 100 supporters Thursday night.

Biden had similar words for supporters in Des Moines.

"There is nothing sad about tonight. We are so incredibly proud of you all," he said. "So many of you have sacrificed for me and I am so indebted to you. I feel no regret. I ain't goin' away."

This report includes information from The Associated Press, NBC News and Reuters.

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