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Iowans caucus for change

Analysis

TAMA, Iowa - Iowa's caucus-goers cast votes Jan. 3 that were widely construed as a call for political change. Relative newcomers on the national political landscape, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the Democrats and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the Republicans, swept to victory by convincing margins, while candidates who had touted their experience either disappointed or fell by the wayside in droves. And the closest thing to a genuinely revolutionary candidate, Republican Ron Paul, finished with 10 percent of the vote, setting the stage for a reinvigorated campaign in Libertarian-friendly New Hampshire, which hosted the nation's first official presidential primary Jan. 8.

The day belonged to Obama, who capped it with an acclaimed speech that summoned media comparisons not only to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but to the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln himself. Significantly, Obama on Jan. 3 became the first black person with a viable shot at the Oval Office.

Among the victims of experience were three Democrats with sterling resumes: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. Between them, they received just over 3 percent of the votes cast at almost 1,800 caucus locales; Biden and Dodd immediately dropped out of the primaries, while Richardson soldiered on to New Hampshire, where he has received significant endorsements. The GOP heavyweight on experience, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, managed to tie Fred Thompson, the film and television actor who has been a perennial disappointment in politics, for third among Republicans, respectable enough for McCain in that he scarcely campaigned in Iowa. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a four-percenter in Iowa, also didn't campaign there, preferring to stake his chances on later primary states.

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But the most disappointing performance of the day belonged to Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady. Despite celebrity, organization, financing, White House experience, heavy campaigning in the heartland state and high standing with the political activists who are conventionally thought to wield influence in the caucusing process, she placed third behind Obama and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate. Both of the worst-case portents came to pass for Clinton in Iowa: Obama won and Edwards beat her. But with plenty of cash on hand and former President Bill Clinton poised to campaign for his spouse around the clock through Jan. 8, the campaign headed for New Hampshire with hope.

Second only to Clinton in the worse-than-expected sweepstakes was Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Romney spent unparalleled time and money in Iowa, won its non-binding straw pole and all but lapped the GOP field in surveys as late as October. But Huckabee's sensational onset has left him distinctly at a loss and disconsolate in his prospects - Christian conservatives in Iowa preferred the Baptist pastor to the Mormon businessman, and now the more conventional right, according to New Hampshire polls at least, are slipping away from Romney as they gravitate toward McCain. The going analysis of the moment is that between the populist Huckabee and the position-shifting Romney, McCain has been reborn as a bastion of stability on the right, but with a kind of maverick gear that may get him traction among change-minded voters.

Don Wanatee isn't buying any of the post-Iowa analysis. ''The tribes are always hoping for change,'' said the Sac and Fox elder from the Meskwaki Indian Community near Tama, discrediting the indices of change glimpsed by many in the caucus outcomes. As a precinct captain for Clinton in Iowa, he thinks she still has a chance - ''a good chance, like all of them.'' As for Obama: ''He's new, he's young, he's full of vinegar.'' But unless he can enter the Oval Office with a Democratic majority in Congress, ''it'll be the same old drag it's been for 12 years'' since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. He has some vinegar of his own for President Bush, his policies and his fellow Republicans - ''Mitt Romney never mentioned Indians once'' in Iowa, and he doubts Huckabee ever did, either.