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Raising the bar

Web Extra | Obama, Huckabee rise to the top in Iowa caucuses

Candidate Profiles: Mike Huckabee | Barack Obama

While Iowa caucus-goers packed into gyms and churches last night to choose presidential nominees, a handful of Sen. Hillary Clinton's supporters perched on bar stools in the Thank Ya Now Saloon in Pageland, S.C., to watch the results.

The tiny bar in a rural farming town seemed an unlikely place to find Clinton supporters watching caucus returns, but the meager crowd sported campaign buttons and sipped beer in the smoky saloon boasting huge NASCAR banners and three pool tables.

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In a dark corner, Congressman Marion Berry (D-AR) and Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel -- both Clinton supporters -- munched on pork rinds and pretzels at the last stop of a long day of campaigning for Clinton in South Carolina.

Nearby, a lone Hillary Clinton sign hung on the back wall next to a confederate flag emblazoned with the slogan: "The South Will Rise Again." The mood in the bar was subdued as patrons and campaign staffers soon realized a political reality: On this night, Clinton wouldn't rise in Iowa.

It didn't take long for caucus results to roll in. By 7:45 p.m. in Iowa, officials were calling the Republican race for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. The win represented a huge boost for Huckabee after months of idling in second-tier status.

That boost could infuse increased momentum into the candidate's low-budget campaign facing a slew of primaries over the next two months. "What's happening tonight in Iowa is really going to start a prairie fire of new hope and zeal," Huckabee told elated supporters.

For Republican Mitt Romney, that's a fire he had hoped to contain. Romney's second place finish (nine points behind Huckabee) was a bust for the candidate putting so many of his eggs in the Iowa basket.

Romney campaigned relentlessly in Iowa, and spent some $7 million on ads in the state. Huckabee spent less time in Iowa, and far less money: The campaign doled out about $1.4 million for ads.

Exit polls showed that Huckabee connected with Iowa's evangelical voters: Self-identified evangelicals made up nearly 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers. About half of those voters chose Huckabee, according to an AP survey. Romney led among non-evangelicals by about 2-to-1.

Republicans Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain tied for third place in Iowa. Both candidates had hoped for a better showing, but Thompson told supporters he could move forward with a third-place finish: "It looks like we've got a ticket to the next dance."

McCain used the caucus results to cast doubt on Romney's strength in New Hampshire, where the pair are locked in a dead heat for first place in next week's Jan. 8 primary. "Change is coming," McCain told supporters.

Huckabee faces an uphill battle in New Hampshire: The state has far fewer evangelical voters, and Huckabee has spent less time and money on the New Hampshire contest. He trails in fourth place in the latest polls. The candidate will spend the next few days blitzing New Hampshire, and trying to convince Republican voters that he is fiscally conservative.

About a half hour after Iowa pundits called the Republican race for Huckabee, Congressman Berry looked up from his mixed drink at the saloon in South Carolina to take in the Democratic results: After running a three-way tie for much of the evening, the tide turned: Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) had won the Iowa contest with 38 percent of the vote.

Former senator John Edwards finished in second place with 30 percent. Clinton finished in a close third place with 29 percent.

The second place finish was a disappointment for Edwards: His campaign had poured extensive resources and energy into Iowa, hoping to clinch an early win and regain lost momentum. But if second place was tough for Edwards, third place was searing for Clinton.

Political observers drawing worst-case scenarios ahead of the Iowa contest on Thursday predicted that a Clinton loss to Edwards wouldn't be the worst scenario for her campaign: Losing to Obama would be more damaging, and coming in third would be a deep blow.

Obama's win gives fresh buzz to a campaign insisting that America wants change, and the senator is polling ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire. Clinton's mantra of experience may not be resonating with voters as she had hoped, and she now faces a new dynamic: She's no longer the inevitable nominee.

Leaning forward on his black leather barstool, Berry acknowledged that winning Iowa was important for Clinton, but the congressman insisted that the damage isn't irreparable. He believes that Clinton has the organization and money to outlast other candidates: "I think she's the only one who cannot win in Iowa, and still be in good shape."

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