Kerry garnered the support of 38 percent of those attending nearly 2,000 caucuses throughout the state. His total edged out Sen. John Edwards, who also enjoyed a late groundswell of support that propelled the North Carolina Democrat to a close second with 32 percent of the vote.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came in third with 18 percent, followed by Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri (11 percent) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (1 percent).
“I want to thank Iowa for making me the comeback Kerry,” Kerry told a roomful of supporters.
At Kerry’s Iowa campaign headquarters, supporters shouted “J-K all the way!” as Kerry delivered his victory speech in a voice hoarse from campaigning.
“Iowa I love you,” Kerry told cheering crowd.
“I have listened to you and I have learned a lot … you have made me a better candidate and I thank you,” Kerry added.
“I make you this pledge, I have only just begun to fight,” Kerry said. “In the months ahead I pledge I will fight for you and for all Americans across this country.”
Political observers credited Kerry and Edwards with overcoming the organizational strengths of the Dean and Gephardt campaigns, which were thought to have an edge with their get-out-the-vote operations.
Edwards ran a largely positive campaign that appeared to siphon support from other candidates, including Dean and Gephardt who had targeted one another with critical comments and negative campaign advertising.
“The people of Iowa confirmed that they believe in a positive uplifting vision to change America,” Edwards told a cheering crowd at his campaign headquarters Monday night.
Reports from caucus locations indicated that in the last week of the campaign Kerry and Edwards also drew support from a relatively large percentage of undecided voters.
Some 100,000 caucus-goers turned out to vote Monday night, compared to 60,000 who attended 2000 caucuses.
According to public opinion surveys, Dean had led the Democratic field for much of the last three months in Iowa but by last weekend polls showed his support beginning to lag while the Kerry and Edwards campaigns gained strength.
Dean told reporters Monday night that he is “determined to win the Democratic nomination,” and is looking forward to New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary and other elections.
“Certainly we’d like to have done better, but we worked hard, we’ve got a lot of great people working for us, and on to New Hampshire,” Dean told CNN Monday night.
Dean, in a defiant speech to supporters at his campaign headquarters, said his campaign would continue and urged his supporters to fan out to key primary states.
“Who would have thought? We have a ticket to New Hampshire,” Dean bellowed at supporters. “And we have just begun to fight!”
Gephardt’s distant fourth place finish dealt a fatal blow to his campaign. In a speech to supporters, the Missouri Democrat announced the end of his run for the White House.
“I will never leave your side, fighting for justice, for American workers — American workers make this country what it is,” Gephardt said.
Gephardt said the eventual Democratic nominee will have his full support.
Gephardt said he “loved every minute” of his two campaigns for president, the first of which came in 1988 when he won the Iowa caucuses.
The slightly winnowed Democratic field now turns its attention to New Hampshire, which experts say also has the makings of a close contest.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and retired Gen. Wesley Clark skipped the Iowa caucuses altogether, concentrating on New Hampshire and other states.
Clark told CNN he essentially “had no choice” when it came to opting out of the caucuses due to his late entry into the race. Clark declared his candidacy in mid-October, which he said was too late to run a viable campaign in Iowa.
Political experts have said the nature of the caucuses, which require people to attend small meetings and debate the issues before voting, require a strong on-the-ground campaign.
Lieberman, who picked up the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader on Monday, said he is also looking forward to the New Hampshire primary.
“New Hampshire is a whole new ballgame,” Lieberman said. “The people are going to make up their own minds.”
An American Research Group poll, conducted Jan. 16-18 shows Dean leading in New Hampshire with 28 percent of the vote followed by Clark (20 percent), Kerry (19 percent), Edwards (8 percent), Lieberman (6 percent) and Gephardt (3 percent).