In a stunning upset, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has won Iowa's Democratic caucuses. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is in second place, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean trails in a distant third.
Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri finished fourth and signaled he was dropping out of the presidential race.
With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Kerry won 38 percent of the delegates, Edwards 32 percent, Dean 18 percent , Gephardt 11 percent, Dennis Kucinich 1 percent, Uncommitted 1 percent, Wesley Clark less than 1 percent, and no delegates for Joe Lieberman, Al Sharpton, and ex-candidate Carol Moseley Braun.
Clark, Lieberman and Sharpton have strategies that skipped Iowa; Braun endorsed Dean last week when she dropped out of the race.
Kerry's victory blows the nomination fight wide open, setting the stage for a free-for-all in New Hampshire's follow-up primary.
"I want to thank Iowa for making me the Comeback Kerry," Kerry said, borrowing a 12-year-old line from Bill Clinton, who survived scandal to finish second in New Hampshire and pronounced himself the "Comeback Kid."
His campaign was given up for dead just weeks ago, and Kerry predicted another comeback in New Hampshire's Jan. 27 contest.
"As I've said in New Hampshire and here, I'm a fighter," he said. "I've come from behind before and I'm going to take the same fight that I've been making here to New Hampshire."
Two weeks ago, Dean and Gephardt were the co-favorites. But Monday night Dean was stuck in third. He pledged to plow ahead, saying, "on to New Hampshire."
For Gephardt, who won the 1988 Iowa contest, the loss likely marked the end of his his 33-year political career. "My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end," he said in a post-caucus speech that sounded like a political farewell.
Edwards, meanwhile, was delighted with his second-place finish. "It feels terrific," he said as he awaited the final results at a downtown hotel. "What's happened here the last two weeks with my campaign has been phenomenal."
Dean blamed his third-place showing on negative attacks he suffered as the one-time front-runner, but said he remained determined to win the Democratic nomination.
"We'll see you in New Hampshire," Dean said Monday night. He congratulated Kerry and Edwards for their strong finishes and said he would have liked to have done better, but was glad to make the top three.
"We're just glad to get our ticket punched from Iowa," Dean said on CNN's "Larry King Live."
According to caucus entrance polls, Kerry's win was fueled by a late surge in the campaign, as well as concerns among voters about health care and the economy.
Voters who attended the caucuses were a liberal, anti-war group, the entrance polls found. Fifty-eight percent called themselves liberal (compared to 49 percent in the Iowa caucuses in the 2000 presidential race). But while 75 percent of caucus attendees said they disapprove of the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq, voters were not citing the issue as the most important in deciding their vote today, a clear advantage for Kerry.
The most decisive issues cited by caucus attendees were health care, at 28 percent, and the economy and jobs, at 29 percent. 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.
Kerry benefited from a late surge in the campaign; nearly half of his support, 46 percent, came from voters deciding their vote in the last week of the campaign. Edwards also surged in the final week; 57 percent of his supporters said they decided to support him during that time. In contrast, just over seven out of ten Dean supporters decided earlier in the campaign, before the final week.
Poll results were based on a National Election Pool entrance poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International with 1,660 caucus attendees. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The down-to-the-wire campaign helped push turnout toward a record Monday night.
Caucuses started late in schools, libraries, living rooms and other 1,993 precincts due to the volume of people attending. Democrats ran out of registration forms at Precinct 21 in Iowa City; at least 100 people were still lined up on the sidewalk outside the Horace Mann school.
"This is bigger than anything I've ever seen," said one veteran caucus participant, Dillon-Ridgely, as Iowans turned out in force early in the evening.
Attendance topped 110,000 with about 90 percent of the state's 1,993 precincts reporting. Democratic party officials expected turnout to climb above 120,000 when some larger precincts reported. Roughly 61,000 Democrats came to the caucuses in 2000.
Some officials say Monday's turnout appears to have matched or exceeded the 1988 record, although comparison is difficult because official attendance numbers were not kept that year.