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Iowa Democrats Turn Out Big for Obama

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Record-breaking numbers of Iowa voters went to last night's caucuses. In a few minutes, we'll hear about the Republican race, which Mike Huckabee won.

First, Democrat Barack Obama was the decisive winner of the nation's first official contest in this year's presidential race. For Obama, it was a come-from-behind victory crucial for his prospects in other states. John Edwards came in second, slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton's third place finish. Two other Democrats dropped out of the race.

NPR's David Welna reports from Des Moines.

DAVID WELNA: More than 239,000 Iowans showed up at the Democratic caucuses. That's nearly twice the number who attended those meetings four years ago. Many went for the first time. Many were independents, and almost a quarter of them were younger than 30. These are exactly the people polls had shown most likely to choose Obama.

By the end of the evening, the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother had garnered 38 percent of the support of the caucuses in a state that's 95 percent white. In his victory speech, he cast the outcome as historic.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment. This was the place where America remembered what it means to hope.

WELNA: And Obama cast himself, as he often has in this campaign, as both a longed-for national unifier and agent of change.

Sen. OBAMA: You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: To end the political strategy that's been all about division. And instead make it about a vision - the bill of the Coalition for Change that stretches through red states and blue states.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation.

WELNA: Obama finished eight percentage points ahead of John Edwards, who's campaigned in Iowa for much of the time since he also finished second here four years ago. Edwards tried portraying what was clearly a disappointing finish in the best light possible.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): The one thing that's clear from the results in Iowa tonight is the status quo lost and change won.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. EDWARDS: And now, we move on. We move on from Iowa(ph), to Iowa, to New Hampshire and to the other states to determine who's best suited to bring about the change that this country so desperately needed.

WELNA: Indeed, more than half the Democratic caucus goers last night cited the ability to force change as what's most important to them in choosing a candidate. And both Edwards and Obama tout themselves as the candidates of change. Still, Edwards finished less than a percentage point ahead of Hillary Clinton, who took away a very different message last night. For her, this is still a contest that's all about electability and experience.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): What is most important now is that as we go on with this contest that we keep focused on the two big issues. That we answer correctly the questions that each of us has posed; 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 1? I am ready for that contest.

(Soundbite of cheering)

WELNA: Two other Democratic contenders last night decided to bow out. Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd did so after finishing even more poorly than Bill Richardson's two percent showing.

Here is Dodd, who moved his entire family to Iowa as he campaigned.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Presidential Candidate): I'm withdrawing from the presidential race, but let me assure you, we're not exiting this race with our heads hanging. Rather, we do so with our heads very, very high. This was a great…

(Soundbite of cheering)

WELNA: In the end, the Iowa caucus served the purpose for which it was originally intended: Winnowing down the field of presidential candidates. But for Barack Obama, the caucus served his main purpose as well, showing he could win in Iowa and hoping the same will happen in many other states.

David Welna, NPR News, Des Moines. 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.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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