For months, Mitt Romney thought IA was his to lose. And lose he did – by a whopping nine point margin. The IA caucus pitted organization against enthusiasm. This time, passion carried the day, with Hillary Clinton also losing to Barack Obama by nine points.

Mike Huckabee’s showing is even more impressive than Obama’s twin victories over Clinton and John Edwards – virtually tied for second place, with Edwards just squeaking past Hillary by seven votes – because by his reckoning, Romney outspent him 15 to 1 (media estimates of the money gap range from 4:1 to 6:1).

Just as the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dick Polman wrote the lede of his IA straw-poll story in advance back in August (second item), this time NBC News pundit Chuck Todd reported the post-caucus spin ahead of time – and was spot-on:

Obviously, the Clinton team would rather lose to Edwards than to Obama. Third place would be a near-disaster scenario; second is recoverable. There will be a lot of Friday morning quarterbacking about whether Clinton should have even played in Iowa. It was never a natural fit and because many in the national media know this, there’s every chance she’ll get a few more primaries to prove herself. …

Movements need victories, and no one may be better equipped to feed off a victory than Obama. … a victory here will mean folks will start buying the idea that there is something going on out there. It would suggest that more folks are getting involved in the Democratic Party process (more indies, more GOPers, more youth, etc.). And that’s a contagious thing with voters. But movement candidacies NEED victories; they die quick deaths if they lose – just ask Howard Dean. …

Spending as little as he has, a win will be seen as a tremendous upset, even if the victory is by a point or two. But for an Iowa victory to truly serve as a booster for him in New Hampshire and beyond, Huckabee needs a fairly substantial win (say 5-plus points); a narrow victory will be seen as nothing more than Huckabee succeeding by rallying Christian conservatives. But a substantial victory could be seen as evidence that he can tap into both the Christian vote and the so-called Bubba/blue-collar Republican voters who respond to populist anti-Wall Street pitches. …

Romney could possibly survive a narrow loss to Huckabee if he spins it by saying Huckabee cobbled together a victory simply on the backs of Christian conservatives. But then the pressure would be on him to win in New Hampshire. Obviously, if Romney loses by five points or more, he could end up in a tailspin. That’s the true nightmare scenario, and no amount of money could rescue him. Just ask Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm.

Huckabee stuck to the populist tone that served him (and Edwards, too) so well in IA when he gave his victory speech:

I think we’ve learned three very important things through this victory tonight. The first thing we’ve learned is that people really are more important than the purse, and what a great lesson for America to learn. Most of the pundits believe that when you’re outspent at least 15 to 1, it’s simply impossible to overcome that mountain of money and somehow garner the level of support that’s necessary to win an election.

Well, tonight we proved that American politics still is in the hands of ordinary folks like you and across this country who believe that it wasn’t about who raised the most money but who raised the greatest hopes, dreams and aspirations for our children and their future.

And tonight I hope we will forever change the way Americans look at their political system and how we elect presidents and elected officials.

Tonight, the people of Iowa made a choice, and their choice was clear.

Their choice was for a change. …

What is happening tonight in Iowa is going to start really a prairie fire of new hope and zeal. And it’s already happening across this nation because it is about we; we the people.

We saw it tonight. We’ve seen it in other states. And we’re going to continue to see it because this country yearns and is hungry for leadership that recognizes that when one is elected to public office, one is not elected to be a part of the ruling class; he’s elected to be a part of the serving class.

In his stirring victory speech, Obama reiterated his message of hope that resonated with IA voters – and clearly staked his claim to being the movement candidate in the race, despite Hillary and Bill Richardson running historic races of their own as, respectively, the first female and the first Hispanic candidate for the presidency:

Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope. For many months, we’ve been teased, even derided for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path.

It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it. …

Hope – hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.

Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.

That is what we started here in Iowa and that is the message we can now carry to New Hampshire and beyond.

Looking to the NH primary just five days hence, Hillary’s concession speech reiterated the importance of “experience” – a message that fell on deaf ears in IA – and reminded voters and pundits alike that she is running a national campaign:

What is most important now is that, as we go on with this contest, that we keep focused on the two big issues, that we answer correctly the questions that each of us has posed. How will we win in November 2008, by nominating a candidate who will be able to go the distance? And who will be the best president on day one?

I am ready for that contest.

Now, you know, we have always planned to run a national campaign all the way through the early contests, because I want the people of America, and particularly Democrats, and like-minded independents and Republicans who have seen the light to understand, number one, that the stakes are huge, that the job is enormous, but that I believe we’re going to make the right decision.

Running a national campaign was the wrong decision for Hillary in IA – columnist Bob Novak dubbed the failed strategy “premature triangulation.” Plus women voters remain cool to her candidacy, with Obama being the chief beneficiary.

Going into NH, Romney is more hurt by the loss, than Huckabee is helped by the win. It looks as though Romney is going to have to battle John McCain for the top spot in NH. His strategy was based on gaining enough thrust from wins in both states to rocket him through Super Duper Tuesday, but back-to-back losses to Huckabee and McCain could crash his campaign.

It remains to be seen whether and how much Huckabee can capitalize on this early win – evangelical IA voters like him, but he drives establishment Republicans and conservatives crazy with his foreign policy naiveté, misplaced compassion in dealing with forged documented aliens and perverse penchant for pardoning criminals (let’s not even get into his tax proposals).

Still, right now Mark Penn wishes he were Ed Rollins, whose candidate won by a knockout.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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