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THE IOWA CAUCUSES: THE DEMOCRATIC CONTEST

A vote cast for change

Obama's call to 'turn the page' resonates more than Clinton's claim of experience. Independents were key.

January 04, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Barack Obama's surprisingly convincing win in Iowa on Thursday upended the Democratic presidential race and overturned some of the fundamental assumptions of modern-day American politics.

Voters in an overwhelmingly white state embraced an African American candidate.

Women, given the chance to vote for the first credible female White House hopeful in Hillary Rodham Clinton, voted in larger numbers for a man.

And the Democratic Party's most formidable political machine, drawing on deep-pocket donors and the celebrity of former President Clinton, was beaten by a man who just three years ago held an office no higher than state legislator.

Amid it all, Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, changed the rules of the Iowa caucuses.

Long viewed as an insular process dominated by longtime political activists, Thursday's first-in-the-nation voting event of the 2008 campaign turned out to be a forum for unaffiliated voters and first-time participants to say they were looking for something new and different.

One-fifth of the Democratic caucus participants were independents, according to a media survey taken as voters entered precincts Thursday night -- and of them, 41% backed Obama and just 17% opted for Clinton. Moreover, 57% of caucus-goers said it was their first time taking part, and first-time caucus-goers made up two-thirds of Obama's supporters.

Even among Democrats -- who Clinton strategists have long argued would be her saving grace -- Obama and Clinton essentially tied, winning 32% and 31% respectively.

The entrance survey of 2,136 Democratic caucus participants, called the National Election Poll, was conducted for a consortium of media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, by Edison/Mitofsky.

The results helped answer a question that has lingered for nearly a year: Would a desire for experience in a time of war outweigh voters' desire for change in national leadership?

According to the media survey of Democratic caucus-goers, just one in five considered experience to be the most important factor, compared to more than half who said an ability to bring "needed change" mattered most. And among those who embraced change, more than half backed Obama while Clinton and John Edwards split most of the rest in that category.

For the New York senator, the results stood as a sharp rebuke by voters to a central argument of her candidacy: that she, more than her rivals, was prepared to assume the responsibilities of the presidency.

Surveys have long found that Clinton, the second-term senator and former first lady, was viewed as the most experienced and best-qualified to lead on matters of national security and war.

But voters instead endorsed Obama's primary argument for "turning the page" in Washington, an argument that essentially painted Clinton as a status quo candidate.

"Change is the driving dynamic of the race, as opposed to who has the most conventional resume or who voters see as the 'strongest leader,' " said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.

The results are especially damaging for Edwards, the former North Carolina senator. Even though he barely edged out Clinton for second place, the Democratic race is very much a two-person contest, pitting Obama against Clinton.

Edwards was the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee thanks in part to his surprisingly strong second-place finish here in that year's caucuses.

But after campaigning in the state nearly nonstop since then, Edwards was thought by some to have the strongest organization and the best chance at victory.

Despite gaining steam in recent weeks with sharply populist attacks on "corporate greed" and lobbyists' power, Edwards on Thursday failed to win his core base of union households and lower-income people.

He placed third among union households, winning 24% of that group, compared to 31% for Clinton and 28% for Obama, according to the entrance survey.

Edwards vowed on Thursday to compete in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and beyond, but strategists for his rivals said they do not view him as a threat, mostly because of his lackluster fundraising and the expenditure limits imposed on his campaign because of his decision to accept public financing.

Clinton, however, has the national support base and resources to forge ahead.

She retains double-digit leads in national polls and in most of the big states that vote in late January and early February.

She has raised more than $100 million and, though her once-daunting lead in New Hampshire has dwindled in recent days, she enjoys advantages there that she did not have in Iowa.

It was a stronger-than-expected finish in New Hampshire in 1992 that allowed her husband to declare himself the "Comeback Kid," and strategists say many voters there remain loyal to the Clintons.

One bright spot in Iowa was her strength among older voters, a strength that could help her along the way.

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