DES MOINES, Iowa — Mike Huckabee, the plain-spoken underdog who was barely known even to most Republicans here just weeks ago, surged Thursday to a decisive victory in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses.
The former Arkansas governor, riding a wave of what he called a "prairie fire of hope and zeal," topped Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who spent huge amounts of money and time here aiming for an Iowa victory and, along with it, an aura of inevitability.
With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Huckabee had 34 percent of the vote to Romney's 25 percent. Trailing were former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 14 percent, Arizona Sen. John McCain at 13 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 10 percent.
"We proved that American politics is still in the hands of ordinary folks like you," an ebullient Huckabee, flanked by his wife and actor Chuck Norris, told supporters.
Citing how much he was outspent in this state — by his estimate, Romney poured 20 times more money into the campaign — Huckabee boasted, "People really are more important than the purse, and what a great lesson for America to learn."
Romney appeared onstage before about 1,000 supporters at a West Des Moines hotel. "Well, we won the silver," he said, adding, "just because you win the silver doesn't mean you're not going to come back and win the gold in another race."
But the political reality was that Romney led in polls all year until the past month, when Huckabee caught fire, especially with socially conservative evangelical Christians, who made up an estimated 40 percent of the GOP turnout. Huckabee's an ordained Baptist minister with a televangelist's smooth public presence.
The next test, on Tuesday, is the primary in New Hampshire, a state that Romney has long figured he could win, since he has a vacation home there and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts until a year ago.
Instead, Romney, 60, now faces not only a momentum-fueled Huckabee, 52, but McCain, who won a decisive victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary and, after stumbling badly last summer, is rebounding back to regain his lead there in recent polls.
Romney's defeat in Iowa may end up helping McCain more in New Hampshire than it does Huckabee, for Romney appears less electable than he'd planned, while Huckabee lacks a base support group of evangelical Christians in New Hampshire.
Thursday was Huckabee's night, however.
He was outspent. He was criticized by rivals for having no foreign policy experience. And he was blasted nightly in dramatic TV ads by The Club for Growth, a Washington interest group, as being a serial tax hiker during his 10.5 years as Arkansas's governor.
But Iowans took to his folksy ways and his gentle style _this week he said he pulled an attack ad against Romney at the last minute because he was uncomfortable with its tone, (although he showed it to the news media anyway, ensuring it publicity.)
His down-home approach clicked with Iowans.
"He seems to be quick thinking and good with people," said Kay Nelson, a Clear Lake retiree, after meeting Huckabee at Mason City's Chicago Dawg restaurant this week.
There also was some evidence that in a state where politeness and good manners are a valued trait, Romney's recent TV attack ads against Huckabee backfired. Romney ran ad after ad trying to tar the upstart as a tax-raising, immigrant-coddling small state governor with little national security savvy, the attack ads failed.
Carol Bergdale, who helps run an excavation company in Mason City, decided to caucus for Huckabee in the last few days.
"I wish Romney hadn't have run those ads," she said. "I want to show Romney that doesn't work."
McCain warned Thursday that Romney should get a strong message Thursday from
Iowa voters. Speaking in New Hampshire, he said, "I think the lesson of this election in Iowa is that one, you can't buy an election in Iowa, and two, negative campaigns don't work. They don't work there and they won't work in New Hampshire."
Perhaps most important, Huckabee's background as a Southern Baptist minister was an important selling point.
"I like him because of those Christian values. He understands people shouldn't just go out and do whatever they want, to follow those real values," said Naoma Gesme, a Clear Lake retiree.
Romney's strategy rested a great deal on using this state as a launching pad for the nomination. He tried to ingratiate himself with the locals by jogging on their local paths, sending his sons to each of the state's 99 counties and investing heavily in this summer's GOP straw poll, which he won handily. Huckabee placed second.
Spokesman Kevin Madden Thursday insisted the Iowa result was not a serious setback.
"We did what we could do; we ran a real campaign based on issues the governor cares about," he said. "A competitive finish here maintains a competitive position in New Hampshire and all the early primary states.
"We're playing chess; everybody else is playing checkers."