With a decisive victory in Iowa, John Kerry reclaimed the high expectations that ushered in his presidential candidacy and dashed any notion that Howard Dean's march to the Democratic nomination was preordained.
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards buried Dean in third place Tuesday night in the Iowa presidential caucuses and brought a probable end to the political career of two-time presidential candidate Dick Gephardt.
It was a startling turnaround in a race that now swings to New Hampshire and the nation's first presidential primary next Tuesday.
"I want to thank Iowa for making me the 'comeback Kerry,'" the winner said, borrowing a phrase from Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" revival in 1992. "Not so long ago, this campaign was written off."
But "you stood with me," Kerry told supporters, "so that we can take on George Bush and the special interests and literally give America back its future and its soul."
With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Kerry had 38 percent, Edwards 32 percent, Dean 18 percent and Gephardt 11 percent. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was at 1 percent.
Other Democrats received no support statistically. Wesley Clark, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rev. Al Sharpton have strategies that skipped Iowa; Carol-Moseley Braun endorsed Dean last week when she dropped out of the race.
When Iowa Democrats stopped counting at the end of the evening, an AP analysis showed Kerry with 20 delegates from the state, followed by Edwards with 18 and Dean with seven.
But the fight was much less about delegates than about expectations and momentum for the battles to come. For Gephardt, it appeared the battles were over.
"My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end," Gephardt said before heading back to St. Louis to drop out of the race on Tuesday. He is serving his 14th and last term in Congress.
Kerry began his campaign as a presumed favorite, better known than most rivals and a Democrat with credentials both as a Vietnam hero and a leader of the protest movement against that conflict.
But he struggled to find his footing and sell his this-but-that positions to Democrats wowed by Dean's certitudes.
Until the final days of the Iowa campaign, Dean had dominated the national contest with his blistering rhetoric against the Iraq war and President Bush's tax cuts, his money-raising prowess and his wildfire-paced, Internet-powered insurgency against Washington.
Ultimately, however, Iowans backed a candidate who voted in favor of Mr. Bush's decision to go to war — but criticizes the president's prosecution of it.
The most decisive issues cited by caucus attendees were health care, at 28 percent, and the economy and jobs, at 29 percent, according to a caucus entrance poll of 1,660 attendees by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Among those citing health care, Kerry was the clear favorite, with 38 percent support.
Among voters citing the economy, Edwards and Kerry split support, receiving 33 percent and 34 percent respectively. While Dean won among voters who said Iraq was the most important issue in their vote, only 14 percent of caucus attendees cited the issue as top.
The Iowa outcome raised the prospect of a protracted nomination fight instead of the crisp contest that was intended when Democrats front-loaded their primary race calendar.
As the Iowa candidates headed east, Clark quickly set his sights on the new front-runner, Kerry.
"He's got military background, but nobody in this race has got the kind of background I've got," said Clark, a retired four-star Army general and one-time NATO supreme allied commander.
Lieberman said the wide-open race gives him a fresh shot. "We're now on to New Hampshire, and New Hampshire is a whole new ballgame," he said.
Edwards and Dean were back on the ground in New Hampshire by 3:30 a.m., both holding brief airport rallies to exhort the faithful who turned out to welcome them.
"I'm determined to fight back and take this country away from the special interests and do something about investing in kids and investing in education, balancing the budget, Dean told the CBS News Early Show. "I would have loved to have been first or second. But if you asked me a year ago could we finish in the top three in Iowa, I would be really happy where we are."
Edwards, once barely on the radar screen, exulted in his changed fortunes.
"I think what we saw in the caucuses last night is an affirmation that people are looking for a president who can actually lift them up and make them hopeful," Edwards told the Early Show. "What it says to us and what it should say to anybody running for president is they want politicians not to talk about themselves. They want us to talk about the problems that people face in their lives and how it is we're going to improve their lives."
Kucinich said he would carry on his candidacy, a longshot all along. "No one figured we'd do any better than fifth place, so I neither exceeded nor fell below expectations," he said.
Polls in New Hampshire show Dean still out front, but with a shrinking lead. Clark had been the main challenger, but Monday Kerry began to move up.
An American Research Group tracking poll had Dean with 28 percent, Kerry with 20 percent and Clark 19 percent, subject to a 4 percent margin of error. A WBZ/Boston Globe polls had Dean with 28 percent, Clark with 21 percent and Kerry with 20 percent. That survey has a 5-point margin of error.
"I'm going to fight for every vote in New Hampshire the same way I did in Iowa," Kerry told the Early Show.