WEST DES MOINES, Iowa GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney outspent and, he said, outworked his competition in Iowa but still lost Thursday night's caucus vote to rival Mike Huckabee.
At press time, with 93 percent of precincts reporting, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, was leading with 34 percent to Romney's 25 percent. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were tied for third, each with 13 percent of the vote. Rep. Ron Paul, who has attracted supporters with his Libertarian views, was fifth with a 10 percent showing, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who did not campaign hard in Iowa, was sixth with 3 percent.
Romney, trying to be upbeat at what was supposed to be his victory party, pledged to supporters that he would be back to Iowa as the Republican nominee.
"Just because you win silver in one event doesn't mean you're not going to win the gold in the final event," Romney said after congratulating Huckabee on his victory in the Hawkeye state the first nationally to vote in the process that chooses the Republican and Democratic party presidential nominees. The former Massachusetts governor, a relative political unknown himself entering the campaign, spent huge amounts of money and time to secure an Iowa victory and with it front-runner status.
Romney did note that he'd still beaten the "three household names" in the race, McCain, Giuliani and Thompson," and pointed out that he, Huckabee and the night's Democratic winner, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, were all seen as new faces.
"Washington is broken and we're going to change that," Romney said. "Iowa said that tonight."
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who was campaigning with Romney in Iowa, agreed. "I don't see it as a crippling blow for Mitt in any way," he said, calling the vote a repudiation of Washington insiders that sends a message to Hillary Clinton and McCain.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who also joined Romney in last-minute campaigning in Iowa, felt second place was a good showing.
"Iowa is a really hard place to read," Cannon said, especially with nearly half of the caucusgoers 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.
But Thursday night, at least, was about how Huckabee, once considered a near-fringe candidate, parlayed his experience as a Southern Baptist minister
to draw upon support from Iowa evangelicals and first-time caucusgoers to pull off a stunning political surprise.
"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," Huckabee said. "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."
"I don't know too much about Mitt Romney," said first-time voter Mackenzie Stevens, 18. And Barb Wisnieski, a dietitian, 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.
Carl Forti, national political director for the Romney campaign, said the candidate 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.
McCain congratulated Huckabee on winning Iowa's presidential caucuses, saying it shows that negative campaigns such as 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," McCain, whose own financial woes have affected his campaign told Associated Press. "And two, negative campaigns don't work. They don't work there, and they don't work here in New Hampshire." McCain stopped short of saying what he thought Romney's stumble in Iowa might mean for McCain's own chances in next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
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 minister and Romney, whose beliefs are not considered Christian by some evangelicals.
But the Romney camp did not think its strategy has been 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 them."
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."
Bennett said it was hard to tell how much impact Romney's religion had on the vote. "Iowa is a very congenial state for a professional preacher," Bennett said, adding that he did not believe Huckabee had the strength to continue winning.
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.
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 caucusgoers packed into Waukee High School, one of several caucus sites visited by Romney as voters gathered at 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.
Contributing: Associated Press