Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, capturing the opening event in the 2008 presidential...

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, capturing the opening event in the 2008 presidential selection process and the big burst of momentum that goes with it.

Obama’s decisive victory, buoyed by a massive turnout of independents, was a sharp blow to the once seemingly inevitable candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who finished third behind John Edwards. And it set the stage for what could be a protracted battle for the Democratic nomination.

The first-term senator from Illinois — who would be the nation’s first African-American president — told jubilant supporters that a win Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary would put him on the path to the White House.

“We are choosing hope over fear, we are choosing unity over division,” Obama, 46, said, calling Thursday night a special moment in political history. “And we are sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

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Huckabee, 52, a former Arkansas governor and the favorite of Iowa’s evangelical Christian community, defeated Mitt Romney by a surprisingly large margin, putting the former Massachusetts governor in a virtual must-win position heading into New Hampshire.

In interviews as they entered the caucuses, more than half of 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 voters.

“Tonight, what we have seen is a new day in American politics,” Huckabee said, adding that what started in Iowa would go “all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a year from now. … We have a long journey ahead of us.”

Further down the Iowa standings, there were significant developments as well.

Three Democratic candidates who virtually had lived in Iowa in recent months — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd — all did worse in their party’s complicated delegate-allocation system than they had done in the polls.

In the final count, they barely registered at all, leading Dodd and Biden to end their candidacies and leaving Richardson, who touted his fourth-place finish, on life support.

Among Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had hoped for a clear third place, didn’t get it, finishing in a virtual tie with former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was a solid fifth, far ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Turnout was extremely high for Democrats, less so for Republicans. Early estimates indicated that 230,000 Iowans participated in the Democratic caucuses, nearly double the previous record of 125,000 in 2004. The high turnout clearly worked to Obama’s benefit.

Republican turnout looked to be about 115,000. While that was only half the Democratic number, it was higher than anticipated and matched the record set in 1980.

The two parties’ caucuses were very different events.

Republicans, upon arrival, were given paper ballots that they marked in secret. That voting determined the winner.

The Democratic system was more daunting. Participants expressed their preference by literally standing up for their candidate in front of their friends and neighbors. A candidate needed at least 15 percent of the vote in any given precinct to be considered “viable.” Supporters of nonviable candidates then were free to support someone else, making the second-choice voting potentially decisive.

Clinton, who had misgivings about competing in Iowa but eventually campaigned in the state full-bore, tried to put the best spin on a deeply disappointing result.

Noting the high turnout, she called the night a great one for Democrats as they look toward retaking the White House in November.

“Together,” she said, speaking of all her party’s candidates, “we have presented the case for change and made it absolutely clear that America needs a new beginning.”

Edwards, who stirred crowds in recent weeks with his increasingly angry populist rhetoric, received almost exactly the same percentage of the vote that he received four years ago. Then, it was good enough for second place to John Kerry. This time, it got him second to Obama.

About half of Democratic caucusgoers said a candidate’s ability to bring about needed change was the most important factor, according to entrance interviews by The Associated Press and television networks. Change was Obama’s calling card.

He also outpolled Clinton among women and benefited from a surge in first-time caucusgoers. More than half of those who participated said they never had been to a caucus, and Obama won the backing of roughly 40 percent of them. Edwards did best among veteran caucusgoers, garnering 30 percent of their vote.

“One thing is clear from the results in Iowa tonight,” said Edwards, the former North Carolina senator. “The status quo lost, and change won. And now we move on.”

Romney had built his strategy for winning the GOP nomination on taking the first two states. With the defeat in Iowa, and polls showing him running about even with McCain in New Hampshire, Romney could wind up losing both.

“When you win the silver in one event, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to win the gold in the final event,” said Romney, who oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”

McCain looked ahead to the New Hampshire primary, which he won in 2000: “We started this together, New Hampshire, eight years ago. In five days, we’re going to send the same message we did then: Change is coming.”

How much the Iowa results will matter in New Hampshire and elsewhere after that remains to be seen.

In each of the past four contested, major-party nomination fights, the Iowa winner has gone on to win his party’s nomination: Republican Bob Dole in 1996, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in 2000, and Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

But the Iowa results are hardly a foolproof indicator of the November outcome. Among presidents who did not win the caucuses in the years they first were elected are Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Details on entrance interviews were provided by The Associated Press.

The Iowa caucuses
How the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates finished Thursday night (Democratic numbers represent the percentage of the 1,781 precincts won by each candidate; GOP results, with 96 percent of precincts reporting, reflect a direct count of preferences by caucusgoers):
Democrats Republicans
Barack Obama 38 Mike Huckabee 34
John Edwards 30 Mitt Romney 25
Hillary Rodham Clinton 29 Fred Thompson 13
Bill Richardson 2 John McCain 13
Joseph Biden 1 Ron Paul 10
Uncommitted 0 Rudy Giuliani 3
Chris Dodd 0 Duncan Hunter 0
Mike Gravel 0 *Tom Tancredo 0
Dennis Kucinich 0
Next up: Wyoming county conventions (GOP only), Saturday

New Hampshire primary, Tuesday

* Previously dropped out of Republican race

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