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How Obama, Huckabee Pulled Off Win in Iowa

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

By now you know the basics. Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, which means Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, among others, did not. This morning we're going to find out what it means. And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson will guide us through it.

And Mara, what happened?

MARA LIASSON: Steve, it was a good night for insurgents. Both Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee ran against establishment figures in their own parties. The outcome on the Democratic side was a blow to Hillary Clinton, who once had a commanding lead in the state. But her message of strength and experience and even the all-out support of her husband - former President Bill Clinton - was no match for Obama. He tapped into the strong desire of Democrats for change.

A member of the Illinois State Senate just three years ago, last night Obama up-ended the plans of a candidate who once looked like the inevitable Democratic nominee. Last night in Des Moines, Obama talked about how improbable his victory once seemed.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Entrance polls showed that Obama won the lion's share of first-time caucus goers and voters under 44 years old, while Clinton won voters over 65. Remarkably, Obama even won the female vote. But more than anything else, it was Obama's message that won.

Fifty-two percent of caucus-goers said the ability to affect change was the most important criterion; only 20 percent chose experience.

Sen. OBAMA: We are choosing hope over fear.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: We're choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.

LIASSON: Clinton, who finished third, called Obama to congratulate him. But she wasn't conceding the nomination - not at all.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I am so ready for the rest of this campaign, and I am so ready to lead.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: The rest of the campaign starts today in New Hampshire, where Clinton's once-formidable lead has evaporated and where she badly needs a win.

Sen. CLINTON: How will we win in November 2008? By nominating a candidate who will be able to go the distance and who will be the best president on day one. I am ready for that contest.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Group: Hillary, Hillary, Hillary, Hillary...

LIASSON: John Edwards, who finished second, but less than a percentage point ahead of Clinton, had been running in Iowa almost nonstop since he ended his campaign for vice president four years ago. His passionate anti-corporate populism struck a chord in this state - not strong enough to win - but it was a message he had no plans to abandon.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): Corporate greed has got a stranglehold on America. And unless and until we have a president in the proud tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, who has a little backbone, who has some strength, who has some fight, who's willing to stand up to these people, nothing will change. We will never have the America that all of us dream of.

LIASSON: None of the other Democratic candidates got over two percent and two of them - Joe Biden and Chris Dodd - dropped out of the race last night.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee defeated Mitt Romney by nine points. Romney had vastly outspent Huckabee. And he'd spent more than a year in Iowa setting up a sophisticated organization. But that was overwhelmed by the organic grassroots energy that Huckabee harnessed through Christian churches and home school networks.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): You know, I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to love a state as much as I love my home state of Arkansas. But tonight I love Iowa a whole lot.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Two months ago, no one paid any attention to Mike Huckabee, but he vaulted himself into the top tier through his talent as a performer on the stump and in debates. His overt declarations of Christian faith, his sense of humor, and his own brand of anti-Wall Street populism also appealed to Iowa Republicans.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics. A new day is needed in American politics, just like a new day is needed in American government. And tonight it starts here in Iowa. But it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one year from now.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: A whopping 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals. And Huckabee won them over Romney by more than 2-1. The loss was a blow to Romney, who had designed a strategy based on building momentum by winning the early states.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): Well, we won the silver.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ROMNEY: And congratulations to Governor Huckabee for winning the gold. Nice job. But you know, just as Dan Jansen pointed out, you win the silver in one event, it doesn't mean you're not going to come back and win the gold in the final event. And that we're going to do.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: The Republican race now moves to New Hampshire, where Huckabee has next to no organization, but where Romney faces a strong challenge from John McCain, who tied for third place in Iowa with Fred Thompson. Ron Paul finished fifth and Rudy Giuliani sixth.

McCain, speaking in New Hampshire, clearly relished Romney's setback.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I consider it to be Governor Huckabee's victory. I think he earned it. I think he worked hard and I think it's his victory, and I congratulate him, especially the fact that he ran largely a positive campaign. And I guess that that should be, I think, a lesson to all of us.

LIASSON: There was no question about who McCain was talking about. Both he and Huckabee had been the targets of negative ads from Romney.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson reporting from Iowa. And Mara, we've been talking with a couple of Iowa caucus-goers overnight who said their rooms were quite crowded last night.

LIASSON: There's no doubt about it, turnout was the big story here; 239,000 Democrats came out last night. That's up from 124,000 in 2004, almost double the turnout. Republicans - also turnout was up, 112,000 turned last night. That's up from 87,000 caucus-goers in 2000, which is the last time there was a contested Republican race here.

Democrats, though, clearly had the energy, much bigger crowds. Every one of the leading Democratic candidates had a great organization and they got out every single last available voter.

INSKEEP: Well, they certainly got out more people than normal, although I do have to mention it's still a relatively small percentage of the possible voters in a relatively small state.

LIASSON: That's true. But the reason why turnout is so important is because it means that Democrats are energized. They're excited. This is not a good sign for Republicans for November.

INSKEEP: Well, now, what are the signs here for New Hampshire then? What is the spillover effect, if any, to the next state up?

LIASSON: Well, traditionally New Hampshire sometimes validates the Iowa results. Sometimes it ignores them. But remember, last time, 2004, John Kerry started caucus night in Iowa about seven or eight points down in New Hampshire. He won. Immediately he was seven or eight points up. There are only four days between now and the New Hampshire primary. There's not a whole lot of time to turn things around between now and January 8th.

On the Republican side, the New Hampshire primary is going to be a very different story than the Iowa caucuses - very different kind of Republican electorate, much fewer evangelical voters, immigration not as important an issue. So I think Huckabee will find the political terrain there quite different.

INSKEEP: Does Huckabee have a problem, though, because he's finally broken through, he's finally won here, but he's only got a few days to try to capitalize on that and build more support elsewhere in the country?

LIASSON: That's part of the problem. One of the other problems is it's not a lot of time for him to raise money. He's got New Hampshire in four days, then he'll probably turn his attention to South Carolina, and then at least the calendar slows down a little bit. And if he keeps on winning, he'd have a chance to build on the momentum.

INSKEEP: Did anything surprise you in the results from last night, Mara?

LIASSON: A lot of things surprised me. The fact that Obama did better than Clinton among women, the fact that Huckabee did well among almost all groups of Republicans. He didn't just win with the support of evangelicals. He got the support of mainstream Republicans too. The fact that Clinton only won with those very older voters, over 65. You know, I thought it was just a stunning result all around.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.