Sweet victory for the underdogs

Voters won over by Obama’s call for change and Huckabee’s populist themes.

VICTORY was sweet for the underdogs in the opening contest for the White House.

But, if history is any guide, it was sweeter for Democratic Senator Barack Obama than his Republican counterpart, Baptist
pastor Mike Huckabee.

The young and charismatic African-American lawmaker from Illinois, 46, scored an emphatic win in predominantly white Iowa yesterday, while the former Arkansas governor and preacher predictably rolled to victory in the state with a strong evangelical base.

The two national newcomers, in effect, dealt a decisive blow to the front runners in the race, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney. Both can take little comfort from historical trends.

Of the nine contested Iowa Democratic caucuses since 1972, the winner has gone on to secure the party’s nomination six times. Ditto for the Republicans, where the victor of seven out of nine contests in Iowa became the eventual nominee.

The contestants included incumbent presidents and vice-presidents. Interestingly, however, only two non-incumbents – Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 – went on to sit in the Oval Office.

Yesterday’s defeats in Iowa clearly sent tremors of apprehension in the front runners’ camps. It will be crunch- time for them at next Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire.

The conventional wisdom has been that a win in Iowa would ensure the victor a surge of momentum with just five days before New Hampshire – the shortest time between the two contests in modern history.

With such a brief period in between, the infamous Iowa Bounce could prove all the more significant.

If Mrs Clinton had won Iowa, observers believed that she would have cemented her front runner status in the days before New Hampshire. But her coming in third – and being defeated by a large margin – raises questions about the so-called inevitability of her securing the nomination.

For Mr Obama’s supporters, victory is more than just a pipe dream now. They expect a tough fight down to the wire. But they see the momentum building quickly, pushing him to victory in New Hampshire and then again in South Carolina, where his statewide organisation is far superior to Mrs Clinton’s.

For the New York Senator and former first lady, there could be redemption if she captures New Hampshire. But even the chances of that happening appear to be dwindling.

It does not help that the race in the second state to hold the primary has changed dramatically from that envisioned two months ago.

Mr Obama is rising and even the third Democrat contender John Edwards – who fared better than Mrs Clinton in Iowa – is garnering more support. Mr Edwards will also be looking to survive New Hampshire. His real play will come later, especially in South Carolina where he won by 15 points in 2004.

Mrs Clinton’s main strategy thus far has been to appear as the inevitable nominee. In recent weeks, she also sought to convince Iowans that another Clinton administration could be an agent of change.

For all her celebrity, connections and cash, however, the Democrats in Iowa thought otherwise.

They bought into Mr Obama’s message of change and moving past the divisions that began in the Clinton presidency and continued through the Bush years – and this could be a harbinger of things to come in other states.

A record number of Democrats turned out for the caucus yesterday – more than 232,000, compared with fewer than 125,000 in 2004. It was evidence of the success of Mr Obama’s effort to reach out to thousands of first-time caucus-goers, including many independent and younger voters.

The huge turnout – by contrast, 108,000 Republicans turned up to vote – showed the extent to which opposition to President George W. Bush had galvanised the Democrats. It also served as a warning to Republicans about their chances of getting support in November in swing states like Iowa.

Complicating matters, the Republican Party seemed to be heading perilously towards its first convention fight in 30 years with a nomination race still wide open.

Mr Huckabee won the contest yesterday on a shoestring budget and this made him a real player heading into New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But it is far from certain that he will clinch the nomination even though he has seriously undermined the chances of front runner Mr Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, who has poured millions of dollars into the race.

Mr Romney’s defeat could see support shifting to Senator John McCain of Arizona in the New Hampshire primary. It would aid his other rivals, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – the Republican national front runner – and former
senator Fred Thompson.

Like Mrs Clinton, he will need to fight back in New Hampshire. It will be a tough challenge – especially with Mr McCain making a late surge. Significantly, it will be familiar territory for the decorated 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary by 16 points over then Texas governor George W. Bush.

In Iowa, Mr Huckabee struck many populist themes that have deep appeal to middle-class Iowans and farmers, promising to tailor his economic priorities to their needs. He sang to the tune of evangelical voters.

But New Hampshire presents a different proposition. It does not have devout religious voters in similar numbers. And the strong anti-tax sentiment among Republicans there is likely to clash with Mr Huckabee’s record of raising taxes in Arkansas.

Just as in Iowa, health care, immigration and economic issues will dominate the discourse in New Hampshire.

Surprisingly, Iraq has not featured thus far. Likewise Asia, with the exception of Pakistan, which drew comments from several contenders following Ms Benazir Bhutto’s killing. As a result, the candidates were forced for the first time to focus on US foreign policy. They took pains to prove who had the most relevant experience in dealing not just with Pakistan, but also with Afghanistan and other fronts in the war on terror.

But domestic issues will, no doubt, continue to dominate the debate. Iowa may yet turn out to be the start of the bandwagon for the next occupant in the White House. Overnight, the New Hampshire contest early next week has taken on added significance.

WE’VE DONE IT

“They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high….but on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA, an Illinois Democrat

RARING TO GO

“I’m so ready for the rest of this campaign, and I am so ready to lead.”
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON, a New York Democrat

DAWN OF A NEW DAY
“Tonight, what we have seen is a new day in American politics. A new day is needed in American politics 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.”
MR MIKE HUCKABEE, Republican and former Arkansas governor

EYES ON THE BALL
“This is obviously a bit like a baseball game, first inning. Well, it’s a 50-inning ball game. I’m going to keep on battling all the way and anticipate I get the nomination when it’s all said and done.”
MR MITT ROMNEY, Republican and former Massachusetts governor

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