Iowa voters wielded their political power in the U.S. presidential elections Monday, handing a Republican caucus victory to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who devoted ample time and extensive resources to the state — over celebrity businessman Donald Trump, who blew off a local debate and repeatedly chose TV interviews over voter handshakes.
“Tonight is a victory for the grassroots,” Cruz said. “Tonight is a victory for every American that understands that after we survived eight long years of the Obama presidency, that no one personality can right the wrongs that have been committed in Washington.”
The victory by Cruz over Trump and fellow Cuban American Marco Rubio sets up a three-way GOP race ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. The Florida senator’s close finish behind Trump bolsters his case that mainstream Republicans should unite behind him to take on the front-runners.
“This is the moment they said would never happen. For months, they told us we had no chance,” Rubio told a Des Moines crowd that celebrated his third-place finish as an outright victory. “They told me that we had no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high. They told me I needed to wait your turn, that I needed to wait in line.
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“But tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message: After seven years of Barack Obama, we are not waiting any longer,” a triumphant Rubio concluded, standing next to his wife, Jeanette, and their four children.
The Democratic race between former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was too close to call late Monday. The virtual tie was effectively a win for Sanders, a democratic socialist who vaulted from little known senator to political sensation.
“Nine months ago we came to this beautiful state,” Sanders said. “We had no political organization. We had no money. We had no name recognition and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America.”
A third Democrat, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, did so poorly he ended his campaign. So did the Republican who won the 2008 caucuses in Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Clinton spoke before the final results had been reported and she held a slender lead — less than one percentage point — over Sanders.
“I am excited about really getting into the debate with Sen. Sanders about the best way forward for America,” Clinton said. Then she seemed to invoke the memory of losing the 2008 caucuses to Obama. “I stand here breathing a big sigh of relief — thank you, Iowa!”
For Trump, the loss could be significant. He built his candidacy on the notion that he’s a winner, and although he led Cruz in Iowa polls, Cruz’s vaunted organization and bus tours propelled him to the top.
“It appears to me that the people of Iowa have common sense,” 78-year-old Republican voter Paul Faber of Ankeny said at a Cruz rally in Des Moines the night before the caucuses. Cruz, he added, “is the one who has the courage to do what needs to be done: get rid of Obamacare and all the illegal and unconstitutional things Obama has done with executive orders.”
It appears to me that the people of Iowa have common sense.
Iowa Cruz supporter Paul Faber
Trump declared himself “just honored” to finish second.
Rubio’s solid third place is prized in a state known for unofficially awarding “three tickets” for candidates to continue in the race. Rubio broke 20 percent, although polls had him below that, and defeated three other establishment Republican contenders, bolstering his case that he’s more electable and putting pressure on his rivals to reconsider their campaigns. He won only a handful of counties that are home to big cities where Rubio focused his campaign visits and political ads.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush finished sixth, behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Iowa’s socially conservative electorate was never expected to play to Bush’s strengths, but the result was disappointing for a candidate who seriously campaigned in the state, unlike other Republicans who also drew less than 5 percent of the vote.
At Bush’s final Iowa rally Monday afternoon in Des Moines, his supporters privately conceded a fifth-place result would be good, given Paul’s resurgent popularity in the lower-tier of GOP candidates. They said they would be content to end the night ahead of the two remaining governors in the race: Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, both of whom hardly campaigned in Iowa.
Bush didn’t even stick around for the caucuses. He spent Monday night in New Hampshire, where his candidacy has a little more life. Before jetting from Iowa, he implored Republicans to think hard about their choices, without naming names.
“You want a president that thinks he’s got it all figured out all the time, just a big blowhard that says he’s going to do this or that?” he asked. “Or do you want someone that can develop a strategy to keep us safe?”
Rubio, his Iowa campaign on the upswing for days, stuck around, giving national TV interviews throughout the day and shaking hands until after caucuses began at 7 p.m. Cheers broke out at his post-caucus party at the downtown Des Moines Marriott hotel as results coming in showed Rubio inching higher and higher.
His team spread across Iowa to speak on Rubio’s behalf at caucuses. Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, who flew up from Palm Beach County, said Rubio’s numbers would cast the Republican contest as a three-man race with Cruz and Trump.
“This proves that ‘Marcomentum’ is real, and I think it’s going to play well into New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Hasner said, noting that Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is expected to endorse Rubio. “The reality is that as the field narrows, people will start to look at who is the candidate who can defeat Hillary in November, and more and more people will come to Marco.”
This proves that ‘Marcomentum’ is real.
Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner in Iowa
At a Republican precinct in Des Moines’ historic East Village, 79-year-old Jack Miller said he decided to caucus for Rubio over Trump, despite concerns that Rubio’s youth would leave him inexperienced to deal with military matters concerning a commander in chief.
“He’s young, and he’s got a lot of energy,” Miller said of the senator. “I like his kind of getting-everybody-together message.” (He apologized for citing Trump as his second choice: “I just like his approach because he’s a non-political speaker.”)
Democrats caucusing at the same venue, the State Historical Museum, made much more noise. While Republicans caucus using a secret ballot, Democrats make their choices in public, with voters trying to persuade each other to back their preferred candidate.
“Feel the Bern!” yelled Sanders backers in one corner. “HRC!” hollered Clinton’s group. (Sanders ended up with 84 voters to Clinton’s 83, but in caucus math, that meant a proportional split of three local delegates each.)
Matt Highland, a 32-year-old state employee, backed Clinton, citing her qualifications and the importance for Democrats to hold Sanders’ Senate seat.
“They’re both great,” he said. “But I’m strongly for Hillary. She’s exactly what we need.”
Miami Herald Political Wrtier Patricia Mazzei is in Iowa for the caucuses. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei