Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucuses on Thursday, ending the first chapter in the presidential race after a long, sometimes bizarre campaign infused with celebrity candidates and their star supporters, and a record Hollywood investment in the results.
John Edwards appeared to edge Clinton out for the second place slot, delivering a big setback to Clinton’s hopes of sailing to the nomination.
Huckabee, meanwhile, trounced his chief rival, Mitt Romney, and former “Law & Order” star Fred Thompson was heading to a third place finish to edge out John McCain.
Obama’s victory was fueled by a record turnout, estimated at 239,000 at the Democratic caucuses by one count, almost 80% more than turned out in 2004. His campaign appears to have benefited from the influx of first-time caucusgoers, younger voters and independents. According to one survey, Obama outpolled Clinton among women, an area that had believed to be a key source of her strength.
Echoing the inspirational message he has displayed on the trail, Obama told a victory rally at the Hy-Vee center in downtown Des Moines 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.'”
Returning from a canvassing at a caucus in central Des Moines, Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who has endorsed Obama, said, “We have kind of done the impossible, at least tonight. This not just a one-off. For someone named Barack Obama to win in Iowa, which was not expected to be his strongest state, sets the stage for a great campaign ahead.”
Although Obama’s campaign drew a flood of celebrity endorsees to the state, including Forest Whitaker and Hill Harper, no one quite matched the presence of Oprah Winfrey, who helped draw tens of thousands to rallies with the candidate in mid-Decemeber. Whether that actually translated into votes is uncertain, and masy be argued for years to come, but the Obama campaign used the events to gather voter information from attendees to use in organizing on caucus night.
Huckabee, meanwhile, trumpeted a David vs. Goliath victory in his underfunded campaign, in which he was outspent by Romney 5 to 1 in TV advertising. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, benefited from a strong turnout among evangelical caucusgoers, and perhaps by the caucus-eve publicity generated by an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Wednesday.
“If this were a marathon,” Huckabee told supporters, “we’ve only run half of it, but we’ve run it well.”
Standing in back of him at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines was martial arts star Chuck Norris, his No. 1 celebrity endorsee, who campaigned within him throughout the state and appeared in a kitsch-y campaign ad that coincided with Huckabee’s rise in the polls.
“I said it was going to be a landslide,” Norris said after the victory event.
Clinton, with her husband and daughter Chelsea, congratulated Obama and told supporters gathered at the Hotel Fort Des Moines that “we have always planned to run a national campaign.”
“I am so ready for the rest of this campaign,” she said. “I am so ready to lead.”
She still holds sizeable leads in some of the big states, including California, that will go to the polls on Feb. 5, what is being called “tsunami Tuesday.” But Obama’s supporters predicted that his victory in Iowa would narrow that gap.
“The more people learn about Obama, the more the race closes in,” Garcetti predicted.
Political consultant Noah Mamet, who has been raising money for Clinton in Los Angeles, was in Des Moines on Thursday night. “I think the Clinton supporters feel that’s it’s a bigger challenge than it was. But she can do this, and the Clintons do well when challenged.”
“It got tougher tonight, but it is by no means over.”
Edwards had staked much of his campaign on the caucuses, having spent the better part of the last two years there. Those on the campaign were disappointed that he didn’t win the caucus but relieved that he beat out Clinton for the No. 2 spot.
“The status quo lost and change won,” Edwards told supporters gathered in a Des Moines ballroom. He vowed to go on to New Hampshire even though his campaign will struggle against the better financed Obama and Clinton campaigns.
Joining Edwards on stage along with other supporters was “Desperate Housewives” star James Denton, Madeliene Stowe and Jean Smart, who all campaigned for him in the state in recent weeks. Denton said the candidate himself was “very upbeat” even if it was “a frustrating night because we really needed to win Iowa.”
But Denton sounded pleased that it was Obama, and not Clinton, in the top spot, and he predicted that Edwards supporters would go to the Illinois senator should Edwards drop out at some point.
“I didn’t expect Hillary to finish third,” said Denton, who plans to campaign for Edwards in Nevada, which caucuses on Jan. 19. “That really puts her in a tough spot.”
Broadcast and cable networks — right down to new players like IFC cable channel— descended on downtown Des Moines to provide unprecedented levels of coverage of the results, driven by the wide open nature of the race and the fact that, for the first time since 1952, no incumbent or vice president is seeking the White House.
Downtown Des Moines was transformed in recent days to what one observer called a “political junkie’s Sundance,” with more than 2,500 credentialed media turning out and news orgs camped out at a downtown convention center. Hollywood donors booked hotel rooms long ago, or flew in on their private jets for the day. And the candidates themselves were followed by entourages of political reporters, many lugging digital cameras and wireless laptops and reflecting a seismic shift toward instantaneous Web coverage of the campaign.
The irony is that the momentum from the Iowa wins and the resulting media attention far outshadow the actual delegate counts: Just 45 are expected to be awarded to Democrats, and 37 to Republicans.
Already, the caucus has ended the campaigns of Joseph Biden, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel, who ended their bids after poor showings in the final results.
On the Republican side, Thompson was hoping for a better-than-expected finish after his campaign sputtered almost from the start, with his hopes hinging on landing in the top three. He did, but still trailed Huckabee and Romney by substantial margins, and it was unclear whether it would push him out of the race.
But even if his own star power didn’t pan out into winning margins, campaigns didn’t shy away from drawing on the notoriety of the entertainment business to attract attention and potential supporters.
In the final days of the campaigns in the Hawkeye state, Hollywood figures came to Iowa to campaign for their chosen candidates. Denton manned phone banks for Edwards, and John Mellencamp performed for the candidate at a closing rally on Wednesday night. Richard Schiff of “The West Wing” stumped for Biden, and Kal Penn all but moved to the state to help organize for Obama.
No two celebrities, however, proved to be more effective in drawing attention than Winfrey and Norris. Stumping for Huckabee throughout Iowa in recent days, Norris even took on the role of campaign attack dog, delivering barbed cricisims of his chief rival Romney.
Winfrey’s appearances were no less than sensations, drawing some of the largest crowds of the campaign year and massive coverage in the media. The downside was that it drew the ire of some of her fans, who posted sometimes nasty messages on her Web site.
But Hollywood’s greatest influence on the race has come in the form of badly needed cash — and donors turned out in record numbers.
By the end of September, the industry had contributed more than $6.5 million across all campaigns, led by Obama with more than $2.2 million and followed closely behind by Clinton with $2.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Edwards raised almost $459,000 in that frame, followed by McCain with $386,325 and Rudy Giuliani with $376,826.
The Iowa results could shift some donor allegiances, but much of the entertainment industry is already tapped out: They cannot exceed their contribution limits.
Perhaps most surprising was that Thompson, despite his Hollywood connections, never took off among industry donors. When he raised money last month at the Century Plaza Hotel, many Hollywood Republicans were gathered at a party that same evening at the home of Kelsey Grammer, a key supporter of Giuliani.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.