In two short hours, caucusgoers in Iowa meeting around kitchen tables and in high school gymnasiums have ripped up the conventional political wisdom of the past six months - delivering one of the biggest turnabouts in modern electoral history.
By handing a stunning victory to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Iowa's Democrats have - overnight - anointed a new frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination and seriously imperiled the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dr. Dean, for months the heavy favorite in the race, came in a distant third, behind Senator Kerry and a strong second-place showing by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, who staked his candidacy on a win in Iowa, made clear he would withdraw from the race after a weak fourth-place showing.
The race now heads to New Hampshire with a new quartet of contenders: Kerry as this contest's comeback kid, Senator Edwards as a rapidly rising star, retired Gen. Wesley Clark (who bypassed Iowa) as a potentially strong contender, and Dean as a wounded but still viable candidate with a large war chest and extensive grassroots organization.
"It certainly shuffles the deck," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "[Kerry and Edwards] will probably shoot to the top of the pack. And it puts Dean in a very precarious position. He's really going to have a make or break event in New Hampshire."
Observers agree that Kerry and Edwards both benefited from a strong final week of campaigning in which they came across as focused and clear - unlike Dean, who seemed to lose his footing. As the presumptive frontrunner for months, Dean spent the final weeks of the race here on the defensive, fending off attacks from his rivals, and smoothing over his own misstatements and gaffes. He also struggled to find the right balance between the posture of an establishment frontrunner and a feisty outsider.
Increased sniping between the Dean and Gephardt campaigns may also have hurt both men, allowing Kerry and particularly Edwards to differentiate themselves as running more positive campaigns.
Kerry and Edwards "closed strong," says Jeff Link, an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin. "You could repeat John Edwards's message back: He said, 'I'm going to run a positive campaign, lift people up.' [Similarly,] Kerry was saying, 'I'm experienced, and I'm a veteran, and I'm ready'." Dean, on the other hand, "wasn't able to communicate his core message because he was on the defensive," Mr. Link says.
Significantly, Kerry and Edwards have both been hitting strong populist notes, focusing on the clout of special interests in Washington. Both men have been drawing clear contrasts with Gephardt and Dean on taxes - with Gephardt and Dean calling for the complete rollback of the Bush tax cuts, and Kerry and Edwards arguing for preserving the reductions that benefited the middle class. Kerry, too, has been helped by what most analysts agree have been an effective TV spot touting his heroism and leadership in the Vietnam War.
Even more important, however, may be the decreasing importance of the war in Iraq as a campaign issue. Although the conflict dominated the campaign for months here, boosting Dean and creating problems for opponents like Kerry, it has receded - and even begun to work against Dean - in the wake of Saddam Hussein's capture. Strikingly, entrance polls showed that Kerry, not Dean, won among Democrats who opposed the Iraq war.
The top priority all along for Iowa Democrats has been to nominate the candidate who would be the strongest opponent against President Bush, notes Prof. Squire. And Mr. Hussein's capture - along with the questions being raised about Dean's temperament and overall electability - may have tipped the balance toward Kerry and Edwards.
"What happened for both Senators Kerry and Edwards was that in just the last week and a half people really became much more comfortable with their candidacies. They began to look like the sort of people you could see running in November," he says, whereas "a lot of people were really worried about Governor Dean's ability to be a viable candidate against Bush."
While Dean's brash confidence may have drawn initial converts, in the end many voters here, in a state where civility in politics is prized, said they found him abrasive, and grew worried about his capacity to lead. Indeed, many said Dean reminded them of Bush.
At the caucuses in rural Winterset, where Edwards won handily and Kerry came in second, librarian Ann Newbury says she liked Dean at first, but then grew "uneasy about him," finding the candidate "arrogant." She came to the caucuses supporting Edwards, saying, "We need somebody who's a little more tactful."
Elaine Hoversten, a part-time psychologist, says she too was initially for Dean but later switched to Edwards. Dean's "vitriolic," she says, while Edwards impressed her with his ability to talk about issues "without being mean to Bush. I really appreciated that," she says.
The outcome also calls into question the strength of Dean's organization, while suggesting that Kerry may have had a hidden grass-roots weapon in the state's many veterans. Indeed, at the Winterset caucuses Tim Guion, an AFSCME member who works for the state of Iowa as a painter, says he broke with his union's recommendation for Dean to caucus for Kerry, because of Kerry's strength on "veterans' issues."
Still, the question remains how permanent the reshuffling of the Democratic deck will be. While Dean suffered a huge defeat, he could quickly turn things around with a win in New Hampshire. He maintains impressive volunteer networks in many of the upcoming primary states - and the most money of any candidate. Yet a poor showing on his home turf next Tuesday could also be irreparable.
"Dean has to finish in the top two in New Hampshire or he is done," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Both Kerry and Edwards, meanwhile, will likely see their war chests expand in coming days, as a result of their wins. And perhaps the biggest test of Dean's ability to bounce back may lie in the immediate response of his core supporters with their checkbooks: They have often responded to previous setbacks by donating to his campaign online. "If they respond by writing another check, Howard Dean's going to have a lot of life," says Mr. Link.