WEST DES MOINES, Iowa GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney outspent and, he said, outworked his competition in Iowa, but still lost tonight's caucus vote to folksy rival Mike Huckabee.
The Associated Press, CNN and Fox News all projected early in the evening Huckabee would top Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who spent huge amounts of money and time aiming for an Iowa victory and, along with it, an aura of inevitability.
With 86 percent of the vote tallied, Huckabee was leading with 34 percent to Romney's 25 percent, followed by Fred Thompson, 13 percent, and John McCain 13 percent. Ron Paul was running fifth with a strong 10 percent showing. Rudy Giuliani, who did not campaign hard in Iowa, was sixth with 3 percent.
Romney said he hoped Iowa would choose the candidate who would become the party's nominee, but even if they didn't he intended to be the Republican name on the November general election ballot.
"We have worked harder than any other candidates in this campaign. My team has and I have," Romney said from the auditorium stage, reminding voters of the many times he and his family had crisscrossed the state in the past year.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who joined Romney campaigning in Iowa, said second place was a good showing.
"Iowa is a really hard place to read," Cannon said, especially with nearly half of the caucus-goers expected to have been evangelicals. But, the congressman said, he felt no antagonism in the audience of nearly 500 people he addressed at a caucus tonight on Romney's behalf in Newton, a town about 30 minutes east of Des Moines.
"I think people voted for somebody they liked, not against someone for reasons like religious prejudice," Cannon said.
Indeed, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor once considered a near-fringe candidate, drew upon support from Iowa evangelicals and first-time caucus-goers to secure Thursday's win. There's little doubt that Huckabee's background as a Southern Baptist minister was an important selling point.
"I don't know too much about Mitt Romney," said first-time voter Mackenzie Stevens, 18. And Barb Wisnieski, a dietician, said she'd liked Romney at first but changed her mind when she heard he'd once supported abortion.
Now, Wisnieski said, she's for Huckabee. "That's one of the things that kind of swayed me. I'm a little leery about that," she said of Romney's switch to a pro-life position.
In recent days, Romney had said the race was too close to call and refused to predict a victory in the Hawkeye state, the first in the nation to vote in the process that chooses the Republican and Democratic party presidential nominees.
His campaign's national political director, Carl Forti, has said Romney needed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, but not both, to stay competitive through Feb. 5, so-called "Super-Duper Tuesday," when more than 20 states, including Utah, New York and California will vote, possibly settling the nomination.
Sen. John McCain congratulated rival Mike Huckabee on winning Iowa's presidential caucuses Thursday and said it shows that negative campaigns such as opponent Mitt Romney's are doomed to fail.
Romney spent the final few weeks before Iowa cast the first votes of the 2008 presidential election engaged in an aggressive contest with Huckabee. Huckabee resisted the temptation to respond in kind, instead relying on his wit and humor. McCain said civility is one of the lessons to take from Iowa's results.
"One, you can't buy an election in Iowa," said McCain, whose own financial woes have affected his campaign. "And two, negative campaigns don't work. They don't work there and they don't work here in New Hampshire."
McCain, however, resisted efforts to call Romney's loss a McCain win when reporters pressed him on what it would mean for his own fortunes in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
"I consider it to be Gov. Huckabee's victory," said McCain, R-Ariz.
Romney's Mormonism has always been an issue. Even more so, perhaps, after Huckabee's surprising surge in the polls in recent weeks set up a showdown between the former minister and Romney, whose beliefs are not considered Christian by some evangelicals.
But the Romney camp did not think their strategy flawed. "I think we did a good job of competing for support from evangelicals," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters. "But I think the results will show that there were some folks there that are evangelical voters that identify with Mike Huckabee and he did very well with him."
But, Madden said, Romney does not need to change the way he addresses Mormonism. He called last month's speech on religion and faith by Romney in College Station, Texas, "a defining moment for him in how he addressed the issue. I think he did so with a certain degree of finality ...I think we've answered a lot of the questions ...I would disagree with any assessment this was about denomination."
Earlier in the day,Tim Albrecht, Romney's Iowa press secretary, downplayed the issue. "We're not running into the anti-Mormon sentiment," he said. "We're not finding it to be a big issue. We've made thousands of voter contacts."
Evangelicals make up as many as half the Republicans who turned out to vote in Thursday's GOP caucuses.BR>
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said evangelicals aren't automatically Huckabee supporters, however. "Romney's an attraction to this base, too. Maybe not to the degree that Huckabee is, but he's certainly got some support," Scheffler said. Romney's Mormon faith "certainly is an issue with some people, but not as big as you might think."
But Jack Cline, a retired homebuilder from Waukee, said Romney's religion probably cost him some votes." I'm sure it had some negative effect but I think he's handled it well. He's not like Huckabee who comes on as a Christian conservative. I'm not sure that goes over well with everybody."
Cline and his wife, Sue, were among the hundreds of caucus-goers packed into Waukee High School, one of several caucus sites visited by Romney as voters gathered at 7 p.m. in high schools and other community centers to register their preferences.
Huckabee supporter Adam Lentz, 20, of Waukee, suggested Romney's religion isn't the only reason some voters don't like him. "That could have something to do with it," Lentz said, noting that a bigger problem is the type of campaign Romney ran. "The truth is going to show you can only buy so many votes."
Romney kicked off his public campaign schedule Thursday with a visit to Iowa's Fortune 500 company, Principal Financial Group, in downtown Des Moines. Standing on an auditorium stage and holding a microphone, he wove in references to foreign policy into his standard stump speech, suggesting America faces becoming a second-tier economic and military power if it does not meet the challenges posed by unrest in the Muslim world and the emerging power of China.
His comments seemed directed at countering McCain's assertion that Romney doesn't have the foreign policy experience necessary to run the county. The pair have been trading barbs in ads about that and other issues in New Hampshire, where both men are headed next. In Iowa, Romney's been the aggressor, targeting Huckabee in commercials that had some voters complaining about the negative tone of the campaign.
When Romney took questions for the first time in several days from the Principal Financial Group audience, he was asked whether he would continue targeting his opponents in ads.
"Absolutely," Romney answered quickly. "You can bet what we'll be talking about are differences on issues." He went on to say he would not attack the character of his opponents, however.But Alexis Warden, 32, a company technician, told reporters that she wasn't satisfied with Romney's answer. "I think he should be focusing now on what he's doing, not on what Mike Huckabee's done," she said, identifying herself has as a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who dropped out of the race Thursday following a poor Iowa showing.
E-mail: [email protected] Contributing: The Associated Press
Contributing: The Associated Press