The candidate: Kerry emerges as the man most likely to join battle with Republicans

After all the talk of an angry electorate ready to back a man whose message encapsulated that frustration and rage, the voters of Iowa opted for experience rather than a radical change.

Safe and with a proven record, Senator John Kerry was able to come from behind in the Hawkeye state and surge to the front by appealing to voters of all ages and backgrounds with a persistently positive message and by presenting himself as the candidate best equipped to take on and beat President George Bush.

Despite expectations that Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt were best placed to win because their volunteer-heavy campaigns had the best on-the-ground organisation, Mr Kerry and second-placed John Edwards were able to inspire enough voters without having to twist arms.

It is not as though the Democratic voters who came out on a frigid January night were not desperate to change the person and party controlling the White House and, by doing so, change the direction of America. Fuelled by distaste for Mr Bush and lured by a strong field of candidates, the voters - perhaps twice as many as usual - came out in unprecedented numbers. And, for a long time, a large number of those people felt Mr Dean, the former Vermont governor, could be the man to wrestle back that prize from the Republicans.

But under the intense scrutiny afforded to any front-runner, a perception developed - perhaps unfairly - that for all of his abilities to articulate the frustration felt by so many of them, Mr Dean may not have either the personal qualities or the inclusive policies to appeal to all Americans. In the end, most people decided to play it safe.

At this stage, of course, it would be perilous to read too much into Monday night's decision. Iowa is just the start of the nomination process and, in the past 30 years or so in which the Iowa caucuses have been the first poll in the nation to select parties' preferences, only one Democrat who won in the state has gone on to win the presidential contest. That was Jimmy Carter in 1976, who won in Iowa and then beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford later that November.

But the polls that were taken as people left the 1,993 caucuses across the state do contain important clues, especially as to what happened in the last week of the campaign as Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards saw their numbers first twitch, then start to rise and then keep on rising.

Those same polls will also be scrutinised by aides of Mr Dean as they go on to next week's poll in New Hampshire, which he needs to win more than ever if he is to have any real chance of securing the nomination.

Many had said Mr Kerry, 60, the Massachusetts Senator, was seen as too elitist and "East Coast" to have broad appeal. But a national election pool survey revealed that the former Vietnam veteran beat Mr Dean and Mr Gephardt in virtually every category of voter: rural and urban; young and old; professional and working class. Mr Edwards, the only southerner campaigning in Iowa, likewise demonstrated broad appeal; his youthful and optimistic campaign attracting men and women, and those with and without college educations. The poll, details of which were published in the Los Angeles Times, shows that, crucially, Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards saw their support surge among voters who made their decision in the final week before the caucuses. At that time, Mr Dean and Mr Gephardt were locked in battle, directing negative television adverts at each other. Mr Dean's aides say they have admitted those negative adverts hurt their campaign.

But, perhaps, of even more concern to Mr Dean's advisers will be the finding that an overwhelming number of people agreed with him on his opposition to the war in Iraq - the poll found that 75 per cent of people were also opposed to the war - but that the importance of that issue had declined, perhaps following the capture of Saddam Hussein. Only one seventh of those who voted said the war in Iraq was the most important issue and many more said the economy and health care were of greater concern.

It is clear that the supporters of Mr Dean had reason to feel bitterly disappointed. There is a perception that the one-time favourite was hounded by the right-wing media, which readily reported every "gaffe", thoughtless remark and dip in his support. Pete Davis, a volunteer from California, whose anger was typical of many, said: "I think he has been crucified by the media."

But Mr Dean also failed to help himself. While many of his so-called gaffes were simply instances of him telling uncomfortable truths, he displayed a somewhat naïve lack of political judgement. On the day that Saddam was captured, for instance, Mr Dean would have done far better to have congratulated the President and the country's armed forces on their coup. His contention that Saddam's capture did not make America safer was probably true - just days afterwards the nation's security alert was raised to code orange - but his comments came across as mean-spirited and were spun by his enemies as being unpatriotic. Likewise, when Mr Dean was heckled by a Republican during a speech in Iowa two weeks ago, though he allowed the man to speak for a full three minutes, when he finally told him to sit down and be quiet he gave his enemies something with which to attack him. Dean is too angry, they said. This man cannot be president.

The supporters of Mr Gephardt, 62, the Missouri Congressman, may feel the most sore today. The former Democratic leader in the House was, perhaps, the most obviously decent and well-intentioned of the candidates. Having decided not to run again for Congress, this campaign was a fight for his political life and, though he had the support of the major unions, Mr Gephardt was not able to transform that backing into widespread support among voters.

He, too, was probably hurt by the negative adverts which he ran against Mr Dean, but Mr Gephardt was also seen as too much of the past. He won here in 1988 but failed to win the nomination and, in 2002, he watched as the Democrats lost more ground in the House. There is nothing voters like more than a winner. Despite Mr Gephardt's departure from the race, the Iowa caucuses have, perhaps uniquely, opened up the Democratic race.

THE DEMOCRATIC CONTENDERS

HOWARD DEAN

Blunt former governor of Vermont whose radicalism scared the Democratic voters of Iowa, where he came third after many voters were turned off by his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq. His campaign caught fire with grassroots volunteers and internet contributions which swelled his war chest to $40m.

In his words: "We will not quit now or ever."

JOHN KERRY

Patrician four-term senator from Massachusetts whose campaign was boosted by a surprise win in Iowa. Background as Vietnam veteran and decades of political experience is in his favour, but against him is his image as a Washington insider. Has used his personal wealth to raise $35m.

In his words: "People want a champion and they want a fighter."

JOHN EDWARDS

Boyish-looking millionaire and former lawyer from North Carolina came second in Iowa after refusing to be drawn into negative campaigning. Pushes his working-class background to broaden support but as a first-term senator lacks the political experience of other candidates. Has raised $20m.

In his words: "People are looking for a President who can actually lift them up and make them hopeful."

WESLEY CLARK

The former military leader from Arkansas has big-name endorsements but lacks experience. He skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire where he has been drawing crowds. He hopes to capitalise on support in southern states. Has amassed $15m (£8m) for the campaign.

In his words: "I'm not worried about John Kerry or anybody else. He's a lieutenant and I'm a general."

JOE LIEBERMAN

Senator from Connecticut and Al Gore's running mate in 2000. Has skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, where he is running a "positive" campaign. His strength is building political bridges but the party may prefer a less conciliatory candidate. Has raised $16m.

In his words: "People know who I am. They can predict what kind of president I will be."

IMPORTANT DATES ON THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE

27 January: New Hampshire primary

Although popular lore no longer holds true that the winner of New Hampshire goes on to win the presidency, all eyes will be on this after Iowa's surprises.

3 February: 'mini' Super Tuesday

Primaries and caucuses in seven states, including five southern states that could benefit the southern candidates.

2 March: Super Tuesday

13 states vote to elect delegates to the convention, after which the Democratic front-runner should be clear.

July/August: conventions

Democratic and Republican national conventions in Boston (26-29 July) and New York (30 Aug-2 Sept) will anoint the successful Democratic candidate and George Bush, the Republican candidate.

2 November: election day

Americans go to the polls to choose thenext president as well as all the House of Representatives and 34 Senators.

20 January 2005: inauguration day

The 44th president of the United States will be sworn in to office.

Comments