The White House? Political earthquake propels Obama towards presidency

It's now a real possibility that America will have its first black president after Barack Obamas victory in Iowa
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The Independent US

It was only the third day of January, a frigid evening in a smallish state in the vast American heartland. But it has generated a raw, electric political excitement, a palpable sense of novelty that this country has not witnessed in more than a generation.

Yes, Mike Huckabee (what is it about former governors of Arkansas?) won the Republican caucuses in Iowa. But the night and perhaps the political year that will follow, culminating with the presidential election on 4 November belonged to Barack Obama.

"Change" is the oldest word in the political lexicon, but it is also the most galvanising. And suddenly it seems more than conceivable that Mr Obama, black, relatively untested and looking even younger than his 46 years, could ride it to the White House.

"This defining moment in history," he said in an inspirational speech after his victory in the Democratic caucuses on Thursday. And who even among the most hardened political pros, could disagree? On paper, Mr Obama's margin was not overwhelming: 38 per cent against 30 per cent for John Edwards, relegating the former front-runner Hillary Clinton to a humbling third place with just 29 per cent. It had also been predicted, more or less by the last opinion polls. But predictions are one thing. The first real votes of a presidential campaign are another. And this Saturday morning, the votes cast in Iowa feel like the advance tremblings of a political earthquake.

In truth, the changes are twofold. First and foremost, although the primary season runs until June and the election is a further five months away, Iowa has already made one thing clear. Barring some calamitous event such as war, a massive terrorist attack on US soil, an assassination a Democrat is virtually certain to win this election, ending three decades of Republican dominance.

True, only 350,000 people took part in the caucuses, barely a fifth of the likely turnout in November. But the surge in the number of Democrats voting 236,000, more than double that of their opponents, in a state which has been a toss-up in recent presidential elections bodes nothing but ill for Republicans.

You can taste Democrats' hunger for the White House. The issues favour them, and for all the candidates' digs at one another, Mr Edwards, Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama have few significant policy differences.

The party has already lifted its sights to independent voters and the electorate at large. But the victory of the once unfancied and unknown Mr Huckabee, a populist social conservative with no national or international experience, merely proves how Republicans are still fighting their own internal battles, talking not to the country, but to each other.

But the second change is personal. "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune," wrote Shakespeare and Mr Obama finds himself atop a flood that in November might sweep him into the most powerful political office on earth.

Just consider his performance in Iowa. Admittedly, Iowan Democrats tend to be more liberal than the average. But they too want to pick a winner. Yet an African-American triumphed in a state 94 per cent of whose inhabitants are white. Even among women voters, he defeated Mrs Clinton. He swept the board with young voters, and won over the middle-aged. Only among the over-60s did she prevail.

Mr Obama also attracted large numbers of independents. Traditionally that vote is especially important in New Hampshire. There is no obvious reason why independents should behave any differently there than in Iowa. In New Hampshire Mrs Clinton and Mr Edwards now have in essence just a long weekend to turn matters around. The cause of the latter, who staked almost everything on a win in Iowa, may already be lost. But even for Mrs Clinton, for all her toughness, the campaign skills of her husband and another of the candidate debates tonight in which she usually excels it is a tall order.

Not, of course, that it is a done deal. There will be a different script in New Hampshire, where in 1992 a scandal-battered Bill Clinton lifted himself off the canvas for a second-place finish that felt as good as a win. No Clinton machine of loyalists and old retainers existed in Iowa. But there is a very substantial one in New Hampshire. The empire is poised to strike back.

Thus far, moreover, Mr Obama has been given a pretty gentle ride by the media. But now he is no longer just the appealing underdog, who might add some excitement to Mrs Clinton's once apparently predestined march to the nomination. He emerges from Iowa as front-runner, and his entire record from his performance as state senator in Illinois to his private life and family, will be raked over without mercy.

And the editorial pages and the blogs will start a separate refrain. Yes, Mr Obama, as Americans say, talks the talk on change. But, they will ask, can he walk the walk? His achievements in barely two years as a US senator are small. And as John Edwards the other Democratic loser in Iowa wonders, will Mr Obama's uplifting but fuzzy "One America" rhetoric survive a single week amid the cut-throat partisanship that rules in Washington?

On Thursday evening, Mr Obama was inspirational, kindling memories of the keynote speech at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, delivered when he was still in the Illinois legislature, which catapulted him on to the national stage. Once again, he turned cliches into gold. "We are choosing hope over fear," he proclaimed, "We are choosing unity over division." At that moment at least, he transcended age, party, and race.

But for how long? Four years ago, an Iowa victory by an almost identical margin swept John Kerry to a resounding win in New Hampshire, and within a month he had wrapped up the Democratic nomination. This time, given Mrs Clinton's resources and name recognition, even a clear win in New Hampshire may not seal the deal for Mr Obama.

But the national mood may have shifted. In 1992, Americans set aside their doubts about Bill Clinton's character and made him President. This time they may do the same with Mr Obama's lack of experience. After years of combat with what she once famously called "a vast right-wing conspiracy", Hillary Clinton presents herself as battle-tested. But, for all the country's admiration of her intellect and grasp of political issues, a rerun of the Clinton wars seems to be the last thing the US electorate wants at this time. Right now, novelty and the Obama vision, however unrealistic, of "One America" trumps everything. Once, a week was a long time in politics. But at this time, five days may be far too short a period for her to regain the initiative, and salvage a vanishing Clinton restoration.

The Democrats are not the only ones rejecting the establishment. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, successful business executive, former governor of Massachusetts and airbrushed movie image of what a candidate should be, gained just 25 per cent of the Iowa vote, despite a colossal investment of time and money in the state. With a shoestring operation, Mr Huckabee easily defeated him, winning 34 per cent. Even John McCain, who barely set foot in Iowa, managed 13 per cent.

For Republicans too, New Hampshire is unlikely to be decisive. True, a repeat defeat for Mr Romney this time at the hands of a resurgent Mr McCain might be fatal. Mr Huckabee, however, still benefits from low expectations in a state where he is little known, while Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, hopes to keep his powder dry until the bigger states vote. For his part the former actor Fred Thompson, who edged Mr McCain for third place in Iowa, is banking on a win in South Carolina on 19 January. But even this wide-open five-man battle could be a sideshow, at the dawning of the age of Obama.