Obama Steps Up

Iowa caucus voters — many of whom were first-time participants — gave Barack Obama a clear victory over Hillary Clinton last night.  Obama finished ahead with a comfortable  8% margin. That Clinton lost seemed anticlimactic after weeks of shaky polls.  But the real surprise was that Clinton didn’t even finish second:  John Edwards did, just 1% above Clinton.

And Iowa did serve one purpse:  low-polling  candidates Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson all ended their campaigns.

Obama’s candidacy — scoffed at for months by Clintonistas — now has a real chance of succeeding, or at least succeeding in preventing a Clinton nomination.  Fox News analyst Juan Williams called last night’s Obama victory a “historic feat.” This win puts Obama, who was not initially expected to do so well overall, one step closer to America’s possible election of the first black President. Democrats are apparently attracted to his “I’m not her” image and say that his youth and inexperience didn’t deter Iowa voters from growing enthusiastic about his claim to represent “change”, the most important issue identified by the networks’ polls among caucus-goers.

With only two years in the U.S. Senate, Obama was an unlikely match for the powerful Clinton campaign but America’s disdain of Clinton was evident last night. Speaking with Sean Hannity, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said Obama was not experienced enough but he was “intellectually honest” and genuinely believed in working with Republicans.

“They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose….but at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do,” Obama said in his victory address. “You came together as Democrats, Republicans and Independents to say we are one nation, one people and our time for change has come.”

Republican and Democrat strategists on cable news stations predicted Obama would lead Iowa, and likely lend him a nice bounce in New Hampshire. The Des Moines Register found that many Independent voters planned to caucus with Democrats rather than Republicans, which could have significantly affected the outcome.

Hours before the vote, Obama told reporters, “We feel good about our prospects tonight” and his victory speech echoed that confidence. He thanked his wife, Michelle, calling her the “rock of this campaign” and said “this was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear.” Obama’s optimistic message is often attributed for the overwhelming attraction he’s received at this point in the race.

Candidates have four days before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday lays down another set of results. Last night’s outcome indicates that political predictions have been fairly accurate and if the past is any reference, similar results will occur.

In 2004, Howard Dean lead nationally but then lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, quieting his campaign to an infamous whisper and propelling the winner of those states, John Kerry, to the nomination. In 1976, Jimmy Carter lagged pre-caucusing in seventh place with only 4%. When he won both Iowa and New Hampshire, he moved into second place and went on to become the next President.

Clinton still securely leads national polls but Obama’s victory does have real meaning as the first votes for 2008 have been cast.

In a post-caucus address, Clinton said she would take the enthusiasm of her supporters to New Hampshire next week and congratulated Obama and Edwards on their victories. She emphasized the importance of a large Democrat turnout and ended by saying she was “so ready” to lead the country. Clinton’s overconfident strides in previous debates and interviews may have been a key to her Iowa downfall. After a botched debate, in which she switched her answer on the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, her numbers dropped significantly and Obama moved in. 

The latest Real Clear Politics poll (which combines major national poll averages) before the caucus, put Obama ahead by four points. Clinton was in second place, leading John Edwards by three. Days before, the three competitors were neck and neck according to a Zogby poll so commentators and analysts were hesitant to make any definite predictions. A Fox News report just hours prior the caucus said a fourth of Iowa voters were still undecided.

Will Obama’s win translate into momentum in New Hampshire? How will Hillary attempt a comeback? This weekend will be very interesting.