Obama seizes the lead from Clinton on eve of first poll

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Barack Obama has surged into the lead on the eve of the first electoral test in the 2008 presidential elections, thanks to the enthusiastic support of young, independent and first-time voters.

Promising change from the past 15 years of Bush-Clinton bickering, the candidate's brand of inclusive politics is lighting a fire under the political process in Iowa and nationwide.

At the end of a year-long campaign he has come from behind to be the first choice of 32 per cent of Democrats who intend to take part in the "meeting of neighbours" or caucuses across the state tomorrow night. Mr Obama's lead in Iowa a state that is 94.9 per cent white also cements his role as the first black presidential candidate to be taken seriously in America's history.

Hillary Clinton, his chief rival, is holding steady at 25 per cent and the populist John Edwards, backed by the trade unions, is virtually unchanged at 24 per cent.

There was also good news for the Republican insurgent Mike Huckabee, in the latest poll by The Des Moines Register newspaper. Mr Huckabee, a Christian fundamentalist, fended off a last-minute challenge from Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts. However, it will be difficult for him to sustain a lead in the larger primary states.

Despite the latest poll, the result in Iowa remains highly unpredictable, as there are still a high number of undecided voters. With 6 per cent of likely Democratic caucus-goers and 4 per cent of the Republicans saying they do not have a first preference, the result could swing either way

Mr Obama has seen his lead grow in the Register's poll despite fierce challenges from the Clinton campaign, including such negative tactics as reminding voters of his use of cocaine as a young man.

In Perry, Mr Obama stuck to his core message, attackign the fractious politics of "tearing your opponents down instead of lifting the country up". For months he has been telling voters that America does not need to be divided and angry. "You can't afford to settle for the same old politics," he told an enthusiastic crowd.

The poll found that Iowa Democrats say they prefer change and unity to other leadership characteristics such as experience, which the Clinton campaign has been keen to stress. John Rethwisch, a 56-year-old Democrat, said he wanted a candidate who represents a sharp departure from the status quo. "I have been seeing more and more something Kennedy-esque coming from Obama," he said.

The three top Democrats have been attracting large crowds, with Mrs Clinton having the added attraction of the political celebrity Bill Clinton by her side. Mr Edwards remains a challenge to both, with an angry, populist anti-special interest campaign that resonates among middle-class Iowans.

But voters have flocked to hear Mr Obama's address with its message that "Americans all across the country are hungry for desperate for a new type of politics. A politics focused not on what divides us but on our common values and our common ideals".

He was scathing in his Perry speech: "Now we hear some other candidates speak almost scornfully about this idea of hope. They imply that hope means you're naive or passive or you can't fight."

As the political commentator Walter Shapiro put it: "Obama is following his own compass setting out on a path different from those of former Democratic presidential contenders."