In a stunning upset, CBS News projects Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as the winner of the Iowa caucus. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is in second place and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is in third. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt is projected to finish fourth.
Kerry's victory blew 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 told the Associated Press.
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."
Gephardt, winner of the 1988 caucuses, scrapped plans to fly to New Hampshire after his disappointing fourth-place finish, a source said Monday night, possibly signaling the end of his presidential campaign.
Edwards 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."
Kerry had nothing to say while the voting proceeded, but he spoke of the stakes hours earlier: "We in Iowa are marking the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency. That's what this is all about."
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 an entrance poll of caucus-goers, the voters were a liberal, anti-war group mainly concerned about health care and the economy.
Edwards benefited from a strong surge late in the campaign; over half of his supporters said they decided to support him in the final week of the campaign.
In contrast, nearly three-quarters of Dean's supporters decided earlier in the campaign, before the final week. Kerry's supporters are roughly divided between those that decided in the past week, and those that decided before that.
Each candidate's voters came to the caucuses looking for different things. Dean's supporters said they liked him because he takes strong stands on the issues, while Kerry's voters supported him because they think he has the right experience, and that he can beat George W. Bush in November. Gephardt and Edward's voters both said they felt their candidate cares about them.
Demographically, Kerry's lead came from many sources. The oldest caucus attendees, those above 65 years of age, supported Kerry, as did those with less than a college education. Liberal voters divided among the top three contenders - Kerry, Edwards and Dean - while moderate and conservative voters preferred Kerry.
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 + 4 percentage points.
With pre-caucus polls showing the race a dead heat, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt and Kerry fought for the state's 45 delegates — out of 2,162 needed to claim the nomination — and for momentum heading into New Hampshire's primary eight days later.
Dean, after two weeks of political combat that took a toll, had hoped to re-establish his credentials as front-runner even as polls in Iowa showed a four-way statistical tie. Gephardt, winner of the 1988 caucuses, would be unlikely to continue his campaign if defeated here.
Expectations were lower for Edwards and Kerry, thus a solid showing would give them momentum for the New Hampshire primary and the seven-state follow-up Feb. 3. Victory would send them surging.
"I think we're going to win," Dean said hours before voting began, before hedging his bets: "No matter what happens, we're going to have more to do."
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.
Dianne Dillon-Ridgely, a veteran caucus-goer, said, "this is bigger than anything I've ever seen. We're not going to have enough room in here."