By Scott Helman and Susan Milligan, Globe staff
DES MOINES _ Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, two political sensations delivering messages of change and conciliation, captured the first victories of the 2008 presidential campaign on Thursday night, winning the Iowa caucuses after a hard-fought, wide-open contest in both political parties.
Both Obama, the Democratic winner, and Huckabee, his Republican counterpart, had been painted by opponents as inexperienced and not ready to lead the nation. But Iowa voters, despite being wooed by established, well-funded political veterans in both parties, in the end favored the candidates who polls showed they simply liked better.
Obama's victory is the latest success in the Illinois senator's charmed political life, and it puts him in a strong position going into New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday.
Huckabee, with a populist message and a folksy style, pulled together a coalition of evangelical Christians and home-schooling advocates to beat Romney, despite the former Massachusetts governor's huge cash advantage, superior organization and negative ad campaign.
The loss to Huckabee represents a major blow to Romney, whose planned path to the Republican presidential nomination always began in Iowa. Romney had spent much of the past three years courting voters here, building a massive organization, and positioning himself as the electable conservative.
Though Romney remains a front-runner in New Hampshire, the Iowa loss puts him in a perilous position going into Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire. Arizona Senator John McCain, who won the 2000 Granite State primary, is resurgent in polls there, and Romney must now face him with little or no momentum from Iowa.
Romney had put his faith in his volunteers and activists, hoping that the powerful political network he built in Iowa would beat back an unexpectedly strong challenge from Huckabee. But Huckabee, casting himself as the genuine social conservative in a David-vs-Goliath battle for the state's votes, won by running an old-fashioned, grassroots campaign.
Huckabee faces a tougher fight in New Hampshire, where there are few evangelical Christians. But the Arkansas lawmaker, pointing to polls showing him performing well in states like South Carolina and Georgia, hopes to use Iowa to build a national groundswell of support.
Bracing the Iowa cold, voters early Thursday evening began filing into church basements, schools, libraries, and other meeting places in nearly 1,800 locations around the state. The caucuses, which are basically just neighborhood meetings, are polite but serious affairs, with friends and acquaintances often cajoling one another to back their preferred candidate. To do well, a contender needed to muster broad support across Iowa's 99 counties.
The fierce competition for voters now rockets east to New Hampshire, where candidates will have just five days either to capitalize on their Iowa successes or to recover from their disappointments. The dynamic in the Republican contest also shifts to include Arizona Senator John McCain, who was never expected to do well in Iowa but is vying for the lead in New Hampshire, where he needs to finish strong to remain a top contender.
All of the leading candidates will be politicking furiously in the Granite State over the weekend. Several had early-morning rallies scheduled for Friday to greet their arriving planes. On Saturday evening, the Republicans and the Democrats will gather at Saint Anselm College in Manchester for back-to-back, nationally televised 90-minute debates.