Iowa Voters Reject Front-Runners

A come-from-behind victory can be a potent propellant in politics. That may be the case for Senator Barack Obama, whose strong win in the Iowa caucuses may translate into strong momentum for the New Hampshire primary in four days. It may be more difficult for the Republican winner.

Obama's team succeeded in bringing in tens of thousands of young people and independents who helped double the turnout in the Iowa Democratic caucuses compared to four years ago.

Senator Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for much of 2007, suffered the consequences of that status. Opponents turned the heat on her in debates, political advertising and endorsements. She is the inevitable nominee no more.

Both Obama and Clinton have found their political footing in the past year under the klieg lights, breaking records as the first mainstream black and female candidates in U.S. history. The election of either would mark a dramatic break with the past.

But the Iowa caucuses showed that, at least in the opening vote, Obama corralled the "change" vote. Polls showed the Democrats put a priority on change versus experience by a 52-20 edge and Obama benefited from that. He managed to paint Clinton as a candidate tied to the past, to the Democratic establishment, while portraying himself as a change agent for the future.

Obama gave an inspirational victory speech, talking of barriers already broken in Iowa and challenging New Hampshire voters to carry on the momentum. Clinton, who came in third with 29 percent to Obama's 38 percent of caucus votes, was low-key but steady, losing in the charisma campaign to the euphoric Obama. She put the focus on the general election -- on Democrats choosing someone who is electable and can lead with experience from day one.

Obama not only commanded the under-35 voters, he also won among Iowa women in general by a 35-30 edge, according to polls of Iowans as they entered the caucuses. Clinton led Obama in the category of voters 45 and older. The polls showed that Iowans felt that the economy and the Iraq war were most important, at 35 percent each, followed by health care, at 27 percent.

Obama and Clinton are flush with campaign money, more than enough to fuel their head-to-head combat in coming primaries. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who came in slightly ahead of Clinton, is in far more perilous financial condition.

The situation is dramatically different in the Republican ranks.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also scored big as a giant-killer, surging from single-digit support two months ago to clobber onetime Iowa front-runner Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. But Romney still has plenty of money and is a known quantity in New Hampshire. Huckabee was outspent 15-1 by Romney in Iowa and has run a shoestring campaign nationally, both in terms of funding and political structures. He has to parlay his Iowa victory into new infusions of money and talent.

That is not a given. It isn't clear how his Iowa mandate will translate in other states. Sixty percent of Huckabee's Iowa vote came from evangelicals, a tribute to Huckabee's folksy manner and conservative views honed as a Baptist minister before he went into politics. There are few evangelicals in New Hampshire.

What's more, in recent weeks, Huckabee has morphed into an economic populist, anathema to a core part of the Republican Party and putting him at odds with New Hampshire's fiscal and foreign-policy conservatives who hold dear an anti-tax, small-government platform.

The stunning Iowa results raise questions that will play out in coming primaries:

  • Was former President Bill Clinton a plus or minus for Hillary in Iowa? There was a striking difference between the Clintons and other candidates after the votes were known, with minimal contact between Bill and Hillary in the prime-time concession speech, in sharp contrast to Obama's tribute to his wife and Elizabeth Edwards' introduction of her husband John.
  • It could be that exit polls and future focus groups will flesh out questions about whether a "change" message also incorporates a wish for a fresh start with the next first family, versus the return of a "two-for-one" Clinton duo.
  • Will Obama be able to take the heat that comes with relentless scrutiny of a frontrunner? It would be rare for someone with so little national political experience, and media exposure, to hold the national stage for the long term.
  • What message will work now for Clinton? She tried to reposition herself as a "candidate of change" in recent weeks but this wasn't always a good fit after months of campaigning as the candidate with experience. It is unclear if she can make that case convincingly now -- unless Obama stumbles.
  • What else did the caucus voters conclude about Clinton? Some caucus analysts said the fact that Edwards came in second proves that Clinton's negatives are too high to sustain her. But Edwards is a known commodity in Iowa after two presidential campaigns here. For many voters, he was a natural second-vote option, not necessarily as a vote against Clinton.

Beyond the angst and euphoria in individual campaigns, Iowa's huge turnout caused analysts in both national parties to take notice. This was true of the numbers of new voters -- evangelicals who poured into the Republican caucuses, and independents and young people who poured into Democratic caucuses. Overall, three times as many Iowans turned out for Democratic caucuses as they did for Republicans.

There was a huge gender gap between the parties as well as among the candidates. Democratic voters were 57 percent female and 43 percent male, the flip side of Republicans voters, at 56 percent male and 44 percent female.

That promises an interesting road ahead.

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