After tight voting in Iowa that propelled Senator Barack Obama to an opening victory in the Democratic campaign and conservative Mick Huckabee in the Republican race, the presidential candidates moved on to the next battleground state Friday.
Hillary Clinton, who only weeks ago appeared to be gliding to the Democratic nomination, quickly hit the campaign trail, holding a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire as she tries to rebound from a disappointing third place Iowa finish.
"Are you ready for the next five days?" Clinton asked supporters, foreshadowing the intense campaigning that will take place before New Hampshire voters head to polls on Tuesday.
Although New Hampshire's population is only about 1.3 million, the north-east state is seen as crucial for candidates to gain momentum in the state-by-state voting in the coming weeks to determine the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees for the November 4 election.
Obama, seeking to become the first African-American president and portraying himself as the candidate of change, took 38 per cent of the vote in the Iowa caucus. Former senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards finished second with 30 per cent, edging out Clinton, who got 29 per cent of the vote.
On the Republican side, Thursday's major-party preference polls in the rural, Midwestern state handed a decisive win to the Baptist preacher Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee, who is popular with fellow evangelical Christians, led centre-right Republicans with 34 per cent of the vote. Only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was even competitive with 25 per cent of the vote.
Obama's breakout victory in Iowa is the culmination of his campaign for most of 2007 to challenge Clinton, wife of popular former president Bill Clinton and long seen as the centre-left's top contender.
"On this January night, on this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said you couldn't do," Obama told supporters, his voice hoarse from round-the-clock campaigning. "You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days."
Clinton, however, was still leading in statewide polls in New Hampshire and could hold on to her frontrunner status if she performs well in the state.
Obama has positioned himself as a force for change from typical Washington politics. That message seemed to resonate with Iowa caucus-goers like retired teacher Diane Larson, 55.
"I'm so sick of normal politicians. I think they're all power- hungry people," she said. "To me, (Obama) just represents something different. He seems a little more normal and less jaded."
The three top Democrats had been locked in a tight race ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
Obama, whose father is from Kenya, is a Chicago lawyer and community activist whose personal charisma and positive style catapulted him to national prominence after he won a US Senate seat for Illinois in 2004. His success Thursday night came in a mostly rural state with a more than 90-per-cent white population.
On the Republican side, Huckabee's win marked a serious blow for Romney, who had hoped that an Iowa victory would propel him to dominance in other early voting states.
Romney had built a large campaign infrastructure in Iowa and vastly outspent Huckabee, only to fall decisively into second place.
Romney rose in polls and campaign fundraising in 2007 to become the Republican national co-frontrunner with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who mostly ignored Iowa to focus on larger, later states and was at just 3 per cent Thursday night.
Huckabee's upstart campaign caught fire in late autumn, as he performed well in several of the numerous candidate debates. Polling showed that religious conservatives in the right wing of the Republican Party looked to Huckabee - an ordained Baptist minister - amid their lingering doubts about the more liberal records of Romney and Giuliani on social issues.
The Iowa result shows that "people really are more important than the purse," Huckabee said.
"I hope we will forever change how Americans look at their political system and how we elect our political officials," he said. "Wherever it ends, it started here in Iowa."
Romney congratulated Huckabee on his victory and focussed on the fact that both had beaten candidates with much greater name recognition before the campaign began - Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain.
Romney is locked in a tight battle with McCain in New Hampshire, according to polls. McCain, who drew 13 per cent of the votes in Iowa, won New Hampshire during his first presidential run against Bush in 2000.
McCain finished effectively in a tie for third place with Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, who also had 13 per cent.
In a not-so-subtle jab at Romney, McCain said Thursday night at a New Hampshire campaign stop that Huckabee's victory showed "you can't buy an election ... and negative campaigns don't work."
Romney had spent far more money than any other candidate on television commercials and campaigning in Iowa, with many of his ads in recent weeks directly targeting Huckabee.
In what has become a ritual of grass-roots democracy, Republican and Democratic voters gathered separately Thursday night in thousands of meetings statewide, voicing their preferences for the major-party nominations for the November 4 general elections.
Two veteran Democratic senators, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware, announced late Thursday that they would quit the race after each finishing with less than 1 per cent in Iowa.
It remains to be seen whether Edward's second-place finish can revive his campaign, which had stalled in the months leading up to Iowa.
"The one thing that's clear," said Edwards, "... is that the status quo lost and change won."
TAGS: USA US elections