Romney effectively conceded defeat in a Fox News interview less than an hour after the GOP caucuses began. Later, at a hotel ballroom in West Des Moines, he told supporters: "Well, we won the silver. Congratulations to Gov. Huckabee for winning the gold. Nice job."
The former Massachusetts governor went on, smiling stiffly: "You win the silver in one event, it doesn't mean you're not going to come back and win the gold in the final event -- and that we're going to do."
Still, it was a stinging defeat.
Less than six weeks ago, Huckabee, a Baptist minister, was considered an also-ran in Iowa with even worse prospects nationally. But strong support among Christian conservatives helped him pass Romney and hold on to win despite a series of widely publicized gaffes.
Romney, who invested millions of dollars in Iowa -- easily outspending his opponents -- and savaged Huckabee in a series of negative TV ads, faces a potential must-win election in New Hampshire.
At his party -- flanked by his wife, Janet, and actor Chuck Norris -- Huckabee predicted his victory would ignite "a prairie fire of new hope and zeal."
But he faces a stiffer test in New Hampshire, where the political terrain looks less favorable. Evangelical Christians, who voted overwhelmingly for the former Arkansas governor, made up about 6 in 10 Iowa caucusgoers. In years past, evangelicals have made up fewer than 20% of the New Hampshire electorate.
McCain, who easily carried New Hampshire in 2000, may be the biggest beneficiary of the Iowa results. He was locked in a tight race for third place with Thompson.
About half an hour after Huckabee's victory became apparent, McCain and his wife walked beaming into a Manchester, N.H., meeting room to the cheers of about 40 supporters.
"I think that the lesson of this election in Iowa is that: one, you can't buy an election in Iowa; and two, that negative campaigns don't work. They don't work there, and they don't work here in New Hampshire," he said.
He flatly predicted: "We are going to win New Hampshire."
On the Democratic side, Obama seemed to benefit the most from the large Iowa turnout.
More than half of those who participated said they were first-time caucusgoers, according to a survey of those entering polling places, and about 4 in 10 voted for Obama, compared with about 3 in 10 for Clinton.
By a large margin, Democratic caucusgoers placed a higher premium on change than experience, and that too boosted Obama. Slightly more than half of Democrats said their top priority was bringing about change, and Obama won the support of about half of those voters. Just 20% said experience was most important, and nearly half of those backed Clinton.
Obama also benefited from overwhelming support among young voters. Nearly a quarter of those who turned out Thursday night were younger than 30, and nearly 6 in 10 of those supported Obama, compared with fewer than 2 in 10 for Clinton.
With the Iowa results in -- and a mass exodus of candidates, reporters and other camp followers -- the focus of the presidential contest abruptly shifts from the agricultural heartland to the hamlets and high-tech centers of New Hampshire.
After speaking to supporters, several candidates boarded chartered jets and left Iowa to get in a full day of Granite State campaigning.
Voters there pride themselves on making up their own minds, which does not always mean ratifying the decision of Iowans; a scornful saying holds that Iowans pick corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.
The race in each state is as different as the landscape. The Democratic contest has been largely a battle between Clinton and Obama, with Edwards running far back in third place.
On the Republican side, Romney and McCain are battling for first place, with former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Huckabee trailing well behind.
After sending conflicting signals about his desire to compete -- reaching out extensively through mailers and a phone-bank effort, but visiting only occasionally -- Giuliani ended up finishing sixth in Iowa.
Times Staff Writers Maria L. La Ganga, Joe Mathews, Seema Mehta, Peter Nicholas, James Rainey, Maeve Reston, Louise Roug and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.
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Barack Obama: 38%
John Edwards: 30%
Hillary Rodham Clinton: 29%
Bill Richardson: 2%
Joseph R. Biden Jr.: 1%
Christopher J. Dodd: 0%
Dennis J. Kucinich: 0%
Mike Huckabee: 34%
Mitt Romney: 25%
John McCain: 13%
Fred Thompson: 13%
Ron Paul: 10%
Rudolph W. Giuliani: 3%
Duncan Hunter: 0%