WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican Mitt Romney failed Thursday to pick up the first of two back-to-back wins he hoped would propel him toward his party's presidential nomination, losing the Iowa caucuses five days before what is now for him a pivotal New Hampshire primary.
The former Massachusetts governor, who spent more time and money in this state than his rivals, was upset by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a late-blooming challenger who ultimately became a target of Romney's negative advertising.
During the past two months, Romney surrendered a double-digit lead in the polls, in part on the strength of Christian conservative support for Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister. Romney is trying to become the first Mormon elected president, but he has faced questions from some evangelicals who consider his faith a cult.
Romney's ads, criticizing Huckabee on his pardons for prisoners and illegal immigration, backfired with some caucus-goers.
"I was a Romney supporter, and then when the whole issue of pardons came up, I first was against Huckabee but then went back to him when I did more research and learned the full reasons why he released some people," said Colleen Vangore, 45, of Clive. "I felt that if Romney didn't tell me the whole story on that, there might be other things he wouldn't tell me the whole story on."
In for the long haul
Romney addressed hundreds at Vangore's caucus site in this western suburb of the capital, and insisted he was in the race for the long haul.
"I hope Iowans makes a really powerful choice, and if you select me, I think I'll go on to become the nominee," he quipped. "If you don't, well, I'll still go on to become the nominee."
More than half of GOP voters said they were born again or evangelical Christians, and nearly half of them supported Huckabee, according to entrance interviews by The Associated Press and the television networks. Romney led among non-evangelical voters by 2-to-1 or more.
More than a third of Republicans said it was important to have a candidate who shared their religious beliefs, and a majority favored Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor also performed strongly among those who identified themselves as very conservative.
A $7-million ad investment
The voting in Iowa came exactly one year after Romney ended his only term in elective office, four years as governor of Massachusetts.
Since then, he saw his standing rise from also-ran to front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire before late charges by Huckabee in Iowa and Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, which holds its primary next Tuesday.
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Romney hoped momentum from early wins would make him an inevitable force by the time Michigan, South Carolina, Florida vote later this month, and Feb. 5, when 20-odd states vote.
A multimillionaire who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, Romney spent about $7 million on ads in Iowa, compared to $1.4 million for Huckabee.
He also raised and spent the most of any GOP contender, including at least $17 million of the fortune he built during a 20-plus year career as a businessman. He segued from the boardroom to the public arena starting in 1999, when he took over the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City after a bid-rigging scandal.
As a presidential candidate, Romney was criticized for changing his position on abortion rights, going from supporting them to calling for the undoing of Roe vs. Wade, as well as a change of emphasis on gay rights, gun rights and other issues important to social and fiscal conservatives.
Nonetheless, he looked beyond his own past to accuse his rivals of flip-flops.
He also spotlighted his family of five sons and wife of 38 years, and cast himself as the proper hybrid of businessman and politician to lead Washington.
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