Analysis: Obama Ahead; GOP A Headache

Republican presidential hopeful former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, left, is joined by wife Janet at a victory party in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008, after his win in the Iowa caucus.
This analysis was written by senior political editor Vaughn Ververs.

Voters in Iowa sent a strong wake-up call to the establishments of both political parties, validating the messages of two candidates battling against Republican and Democratic orthodoxy and machinery. The most unpredictable presidential race in modern political history now heads to a crucial showdown in New Hampshire.

For winners Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, their campaigns could hardly have scripted the results better. Fueled by young voters and an electorate motivated strongly by a desire for change, Democratic voters handed Obama an early mandate for the message he has carried throughout a year in which Hillary Clinton's experience and establishment support appeared nearly insurmountable.

Click here for complete Iowa results.

Huckabee took advantage of a Republican party dispirited by an unpopular president and unexcited by their choices for a presidential standard-bearer. Backed by energized Christian evangelicals, Huckabee toppled Mitt Romney, the only candidate in the GOP field to mount an aggressive, well-funded, traditional Iowa campaign. With relatively no real campaign organization at his disposal, Huckabee relied primarily on a tightly-knit community of Christian conservatives to deliver his victory. The already fluid Republican race is now in near-chaos. Any one of four candidates could still emerge as the winner.

For Hillary Clinton, the party's former front-runner, Iowa delivered a crushing blow, but not a knock-out. In large numbers, Iowans told caucus surveyors they were less concerned about electability and experience, two qualities Clinton used as a basis for her campaign.

Iowa was long viewed as a tough state for Clinton to win. Facing opposition from a veteran of the caucus process in John Edwards and a neighboring senator in Barack Obama, some of the New York Senator's strategists advised her to skip Iowa altogether. It may be a decision she will regret. Every single major Democratic candidate made a full commitment to winning Iowa, turning it into a full-fledged battle.

Clinton's third-place showing effectively shatters any lingering perceptions of her inevitable march to the nomination. A victory in New Hampshire is now crucial to her campaign's future.

Obama's convincing victory could well trigger a series of primary wins. Heading to New Hampshire, Obama is poised to capture the imaginations and votes of independent voters who make up a full third of that state's electorate. Then comes the South Carolina two weeks later where African-Americans will constitute over half of the Democratic primary vote.

Barack Obama's path to the nomination, once a narrow and hazardous road, is now clearly mapped out. With a series of early wins, he may be unstoppable when some 22 states vote on February 5th. He has now captured the front-runner's crown for the Democratic nomination.

While Democrats found clarity in Iowa, the Republicans created confusion. Mike Huckabee's impressive victory will be next to impossible to replicate in New Hampshire, where economic and libertarian-minded GOP voters and independents far outnumber the evangelicals. But, following New Hampshire comes South Carolina, where Huckabee could well attract the kind of devoted following he found in Iowa.

So New Hampshire is looking like a showdown between Romney and John McCain, whose once left-for-dead campaign has surged in the Granite State in recent weeks. Seeking a repeat of his primary victory in 2000, McCain has returned to his "straight talk" style. And he has had the state largely to himself as other candidates swarmed Iowa. McCain and Obama will now fight over New Hampshire's independent voters, who can participate in either party's.

For Romney, the failure to win Iowa badly cripples him. His strategy was based on sweeping the early contests. Romney has sought to convince a skeptical conservative base of the party that he was one of them and that his recent conversion to core party concerns like abortion, gun control and gay marriage was authentic. The fact that those same conservatives instead rallied around a little-known, under-funded former governor from Arkansas strongly suggests those overtures were rejected.

Rudy Giuliani is still a wild card on the Republican side. His strategy to deemphasize the early contests and make his stands in the larger states that vote later suddenly looks more viable than it did just a week ago. Should Huckabee, McCain and Romney emerge with split decisions in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and even Michigan, Giuliani's time and efforts in Florida could pay off come January 29th. But that's a big gamble.

Almost all of the Republican candidates have had a turn as the favorite over the past year. After Iowa, the picture remains murkier than ever. For tonight at least, Huckabee is the only winner so far. And Mitt Romney is the only clear loser.

Iowa will make Democrats will feel emboldened, regardless of who emerges as the eventual nominee. Turnout shattered records -- more than 236,000 Democrats voted, including a large number of self-described independents -- up from 125,000 four years ago. For months polls have shown a substantially higher level of excitement among Democrats. Now Iowa voters have proved that is correct.

After a year of speculation, voters have begun to do the talking. The voters of Iowa sent clear signals to candidates of both parties. They picked fresh faces.
By Vaughn Ververs