John Kerry and John Edwards rode 11th-hour surges to a one-two finish in Iowa's kickoff presidential caucuses Monday, dealing a stunning blow to favorite Howard Dean. Kerry's comeback blew the nomination fight wide open, setting the stage for a free-for-all in New Hampshire's follow-up primary.
Dean finished third, stripped of his front-runner's mantle and humbled - "We're still alive," he said. Rep. Dick Gephardt finished a weak fourth and planned to end his 33-year political career by pulling out of the race Tuesday.
His campaign given up for dead just weeks ago, Kerry predicted another comeback in New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary, where Dean's once-commanding lead in opinion polls has been shrinking.
"As I've said in New Hampshire and here, I'm a fighter," the four-term Massachusetts senator told The Associated Press. "I've come from behind before and I'm going to take the same fight that I've been making here to New Hampshire."
Edwards, 50, also claimed momentum.
"This campaign, this cause, this movement is about bringing real change to America," the North Carolina senator told supporters.
Just two weeks ago, before the Iowa race turned testy and tumultuous, Dean and Gephardt sat atop the field in Iowa, with Dean leading in New Hampshire and national polls. Kerry and Edwards turned that on its head, closing their campaigns with positive, forward-looking messages while Dean and Gephardt bickered over past votes and quotes.
The stunning results swelled the ranks of candidates with money and momentum, raising the prospect of a nomination fight that will go longer and get nastier than party officials had envisioned with their front-loaded primary race calendar. Kerry has plenty of his own money while Dean, Edwards and Wesley Clark have raised millions.
"My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end," Gephardt said in a post-caucus speech that sounded like a political farewell.
His shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, his voice rising to a guttural shout, Dean tried hard to reset expectations.
"If you would have told us a year ago we would come third in Iowa, we would have taken anything for that," he yelled and later ticked off the primary states beyond New Hampshire. Dean said he called Kerry and Edwards and told them, "I'll see you around the corner, around the block, starting tomorrow."
But the new day will bring new challenges for Dean. His vaunted Internet-driven organization, which helped him raise more than $40 million and dispatch 3,500 volunteers to Iowa, didn't deliver. His anti-war, antiestablishment message didn't resonate. His rivals - Kerry and Edwards here and Clark in New Hampshire - didn't back down.
A string of endorsements - Al Gore, Bill Bradley, two major unions and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin - and, at the end, kind words from former President Carter didn't help, and may have undermined his antiestablishment message.
Dean had touted his ability to attract new caucus-goers, but an entrance poll found he did no better among first-timers than among those who had attended Iowa Democratic caucuses in the past.
And so the former Vermont governor was searching for solace in a third-place finish, "There will be a lot less incoming flak, that's for sure," he told The Associated Press.
As the race turned to New Hampshire, the Democrats were forced to share the political spotlight with President Bush, who planned to lay out his election-year agenda in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
Clark, who rose in New Hampshire polls while Dean slipped in Iowa, turned his sights on Kerry, 60, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
"He's got military background, but nobody in this race has got the kind of background I've got," said the retired four-star general. "It's one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He's done that. I respect that ... but I've got the military experience at the top as well as at the bottom."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, who also skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, 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.
Kerry aides predicted a negative New Hampshire race, and said they were prepared to fight blow-for-blow. The senator himself borrowed a 12-year-old line from Bill Clinton, who survived scandal to finish second in New Hampshire and pronounced himself the "Comeback Kid."
"I want to thank Iowa for making me the 'comeback Kerry,'" the victor said.
With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Kerry had 38 percent of the vote, Edwards 32 percent, Dean 18 percent and Gephardt 11 percent. Long-shot candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was at 1 percent.
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.
A survey of caucus-goers, done for The Associated Press and the networks to measure preferences, showed late-deciding voters turned away from mistake-prone Dean, and his signature position in opposition to the Iraq war did not seem to resonate. The anti-war vote split instead of rallying around Dean.
More than a third picked a candidate in the last week and Kerry got the support of four in 10 of the late deciders. His last-minute surge overrode the vaunted political organizations of Dean and Gephardt. Aides to Kerry and Edwards said their positive messages contrasted with Dean and Gephardt.
"I hate mudslinging," said Theresa Strabala, who voted for Edwards.
Stung by criticism of his record on race relations, Medicare and trade, Dean said a week ago he was tired of being the party's "pin cushion," and suddenly looked weak to voters drawn to his blustery image.
Gephardt gambled a few days later with an ad highly critical of Dean. The front-runner's approval rating dropped. Voters who started second-guessing Dean drifted to Edwards or Kerry. Suddenly, it was a four-way race.
The survey showed Kerry got an especially strong boost from voters who said the "right experience" was the most important candidate quality - a theme the four-term senator pounded home in the race's final days.
The entrance poll showed Kerry reaping the benefits of Gephardt's poorer-than-expected showing. Of the people who came to the caucuses backing the Missouri lawmaker - about 16 percent of the total - 24 percent named Kerry as their second choice and 24 percent named Edwards.
Dean, a polarizing figure prone to missteps and controversy in the race's final days, was the second choice of just 5 percent.
Edwards gained from a deal he struck with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who asked his supporters to back the North Carolina senator if they didn't meet voting thresholds in any of the state's 1993 precincts.
The down-to-the-wire campaign helped push turnout toward a record, as Iowans poured into schools, libraries, living rooms and other precincts.
Kerry won because he did well among older voters, men, independents and moderates, while he was competitive among other groups like liberals, who made up six in 10 voters, and those who were strongly disapproved of the war with Iraq.