The minute Barack Obama, 46, learns that he has won the Iowa Democratic caucuses he dispatches a team of drummers to Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines, the state's capital. The aim is to get the crowd fired up before he gives his victory speech.
It's an experiment, and a risky one at that. But as alien as African dance rhythms are to the residents of this rural, mostly white state, the room is hopping by the time Obama arrives. Fellow Democratic contender Hillary Clinton's speech is being televised on screens above the stage for all to see, but no one is listening to Hillary anymore.
The evening belongs to Obama, who will enjoy his new frontrunner status at least until the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday and, if you go by the latest polls, probably longer. "You know, they said this day would never come," he says triumphantly. But in Iowa Obama, the newcomer, has handed Clinton, his leading opponent, a resounding defeat. Thirty-eight percent of Iowa caucus-goers voted for Obama, 30 percent for Senator John Edwards and only 29 percent for Clinton. Third place is a harsh blow for the former first lady, who was so fond of painting herself as invincible.
The Iowa caucus was a clear vote for change. And America's voters appear to be looking for a candidate who promises the greatest amount of change possible. With 70 percent convinced that the country is moving in the wrong direction, Americans want to make a clear break with the era of current President George W. Bush. They want the world to see a different, friendlier, America. The desire for a new beginning has attracted more Democrats and Independents to the polling booths, almost doubling voter turnout within these two groups as compared with the last presidential election. Turnout among Republicans in Iowa was also higher than usual.
They too want change, but so far have been faced with a host of less-than-compelling candidates.
Mike Huckabee, 52, a Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, was practically unknown only 10 weeks ago. He was a politician with plenty of charisma but no funding. Instead of taking along a professional campaign team, Huckabee chose to travel through Iowa with his three dogs, and yet he outclassed the competition by garnering 34 percent of votes in the state, leaving Mitt Romney, a Mormon businessman and the former governor of Massachusetts, trailing behind with 25 percent of Iowa votes.
Obama and Huckabee rarely agree on anything, but what they do have in common is the promise of pursuing a different approach to politics, one that is less ideological, less underhanded but marked by inner conviction. "These are new faces," says Christopher Hull, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on the Iowa caucuses. "They are not tainted by political battles and they don't polarize voters."
Both candidates are fond of big, innocent sentences that appeal to Americans' desire for harmony. "We are not a collection of red (Republican) states and blue (Democratic) states. We are the United States of America," says Obama. Huckabee adopts a similar tone. "Tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics," he told his supporters after the Iowa caucuses. "But what they want is a change ... to bring this country back together."
Although their victories in Iowa have made Huckabee and Obama serious contenders, even more depends on how they do in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. In all past elections, the candidates who won both Iowa and New Hampshire consistently went on to become their parties' nominees for president.
There is good reason to believe that Obama will repeat his Iowa success in New Hampshire. Indeed, a new pull conducted for New Hampshire broadcaster WMUR and CNN showed Obama leading Clinton, 39 percent to 29 percent.
"If Hillary doesn't stop Obama in New Hampshire, he'll be the Democratic candidate," says Robert Shrum, a prominent campaign advisor. To do so, Clinton will have to deploy her strongest weapon, her husband Bill. The former president will be campaigning nonstop for his wife until Tuesday.
While New Hampshire could very well spell a preliminary decision for the Democrats, Republicans are unlikely to see any clarity brought to their muddled field of candidates. "They haven't put up a candidate we can rally around," says Bob Tank, a Republican voter from Manning, a town 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Des Moines. His friend Russ Stribe, a farmer, adds: "None of the candidates really stands out above the rest." Despite Huckabee's Iowa win, it remains to be seen whether the Baptist preacher will chalk up new successes in other parts of the country. He owes his success in Iowa in part to the state's large Evangelical Christian community.
Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Republican frontrunners before Iowa, are now stumbling. A defeat in New Hampshire would likely put Romney out of the running. Giuliani, for his part, may have miscalculated by focusing his campaign on the populous coastal states. It's possible that by the time those primaries roll around, there will be no one left who believes that Giuliani can win. Political commentators in Washington are already talking about a war of attrition among the Republican candidates.
If anyone can benefit from this prospect of mutual destruction, it is Arizona Senator John McCain, 71, the frontrunner in the early days of the campaign who was eventually written off as a viable contender for the nomination. According to opinion polls in New Hampshire, McCain, also a staunch Bush critic, has stealthily made his way back to the top of the heap.