DES MOINES, Iowa — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the first test of the 2008 presidential campaign Thursday, a political newcomer riding a promise of change as Democrats surged to Iowa's precinct caucuses in record numbers.
His victory over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, two far more familiar and practiced politicians, one a former first lady and the other the party's vice presidential candidate four years ago, suggested a hunger among Democrats for a new voice and perhaps a new approach to politics.
In a victory speech, Obama said: "They said this day would never come. They said our sights were just too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."
With 1,706 of 1,781 precincts reporting, Obama had 37.46 percent of the projected delegates, Edwards had 29.93, Clinton had 29.43 percent, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had 2.1 percent and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware had 0.92 percent.
Though just the first win of what could be a long campaign, Obama's victory signaled that Democrats were willing to embrace the first leader of a new generation, as well as the first African-American with a real chance of winning not only a major party nomination but also the White House.
Clinton, as the year-long national front-runner and the most admired Democrat in the country, according to national polls, suffered a major setback by failing to win. Nevertheless, she has the money and support to fight on, and she left no doubt that she intends to do so.
"We're going to take this enthusiasm and go right to New Hampshire," Clinton told cheering supporters at a Des Moines hotel. "I am as ready as I can be.
"This is a great night for Democrats," she added. "We have seen an unprecedented turnout here in Iowa, and that is good news. Today we are sending a clear message that we are going to have change, and that change will be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009."
Obama didn't win by a big margin, and he likely now will have to duel state by state, at least with Clinton.
Edwards doesn't have the money and the nationwide organization of his two prime rivals, and he could find that anything less than victory in New Hampshire will dry up his resources. Still, he too vowed to keep going.
""One thing is clear from the results in Iowa tonight — the status quo lost and change won," he told supporters at an Iowa hotel.
Biden and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut abandoned their campaigns.
Democratic Party officials said the attendance at the town hall-like meetings soared to 227,000, a dramatic increase from the record 124,000 who attended four years ago and sent Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry on his way to the Democratic nomination.
Their hunger for change fueled Obama's victory. Polls of Democrats entering the caucuses showed 51 percent were looking for someone who could change politics. Of them, 51 percent went for Obama.
Far fewer cited experience, a blow to Clinton, who's built her campaign on that claim.
Obama also won young people, the white vote and a plurality of women.
Obama ran as the fresh voice of American politics — with the strikingly different African-American face to match.
He promised a new tone and a more civil approach to getting things done in Washington. And he played a generational card, saying it was time to retire a baby-boom generation that came of age in the 1960s and retains its combative politics.
His message struck a chord with young Iowans, who turned out in droves for his rallies. They also helped send Obama to victory, apparently defying the history that said young people don't show up to caucus here. Polls showed Obama winning 57 percent of the support from those aged 29 and younger.
He also won in an overwhelmingly white state, suggesting that the country might be moving to a new era in which race no longer defines identity as it has throughout U.S. history.
"It's a great tribute to our country, a great tribute to the state of Iowa that an African-American candidate got the hearing he got, that people looked past those kinds of issues," said Obama strategist David Axelrod.
"I think the message it sends, not just to African-Americans but all Americans, is that America is maturing, America is evolving, America is looking past that to larger issues and that we're all part of the same country, we all share dreams and aspirations and concerns about the future of our country."
All the top Democrats offered similar agendas — an immediate if gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, health care for the uninsured, energy conservation and tax increases on the wealthy to finance new government spending.
But they differed dramatically in their styles, their records and the way they said they'd accomplish their goals.
Clinton, just starting her second term as a senator from New York, ran as the Iron Lady of the party, a modern Margaret Thatcher who'd be tough on terrorists abroad and tough on Republicans at home.
She stressed her experience — though she has only one six-year term in elected office and one year of a second — by adding her years as first lady and as an advocate for the poor before that.
Edwards rode populist anger and anxiety about the economy, vowing to fight big business to provide health care to the uninsured and protect American jobs from international competition.
Edwards invested more time in Iowa than any other candidate — visiting all 99 counties — and knew it was his best and perhaps only shot.