Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucus, beating out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a two-man race for the Republican Party's top spot in Iowa.
The victory follows a surging December for Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who has described his campaign as "shoestring" and said that Romney, who was a business executive before becoming a governor, had outspent his campaign "20-1."
Third place remains too close to call, with former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a statistical dead heat with 13 percent of the vote, according to ABC News projections, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Calif., registering at 10 percent.
Iowan Republicans had an estimated turnout of 108,000, more than expected but still considerably less than the number of Democratic voters, which was estimated at more than 220,000. Many of those Iowa Republicans are more conservative by party standards, a quality that likely helped boost the Huckabee campaign.
Huckabee almost certainly benefited from his campaign's emphasis on faith as well as his own experience as a pastor. The issue of religion clearly mattered for Iowa Republicans — and Romney's Mormonism may have cost him.
Evangelical Christians accounted for a whopping six in 10 voters — and 45 percent of them supported Huckabee, almost double the number who supported Romney, according to ABC News' exit-poll analysis.
According to one Romney aide who did not want to be named, "You cannot discount" the effect of Romney's religion on the outcome in Iowa.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucus. And in an extremely tight race, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards edged out New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for second place.
Huckabee basked in the win late last night during a victory speech to supporters. "I never thought I'd be able to love a state as much as I love my home state of Arkansas," he began after action star and Huckabee supporter Chuck Norris fired up the crowd. "Tonight, I love Iowa a whole lot."
Huckabee thanked his family and staff before launching into a speech that focused on the new direction in which he wants to lead Americans. The people of Iowa made a choice, and their choice was clear," he said. "Tonight, it starts here in Iowa. It goes through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one year from now."
The election is not about him, Huckabee stressed in the victory speech, saying that politicians are elected as part of the "service" class instead of the "ruling" class. "I'm the person whose name gets on the sign, but the election is not about me, the country is not about me," he said. "What happens tonight in Iowa is starting a new prairie fire of hope and zeal across the nation."
While Romney wanted to claim Iowa to meet the high expectations his campaign set in the state with an early lead in the polls, Huckabee was equally interested in a win to maintain the surging momentum and capitalize on the victory's free publicity.
Huckabee has leaned on his reputation as an affable every guy during his recent surge. Wednesday night, he played the bass and traded jokes in Los Angeles as a guest on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" — a high-profile appearance on the comic's first night back on the air without his striking writers. But Huckabee was back in Iowa first thing Thursday morning, telling a crowd of supportive Iowans that the Republican race is "about believing in a cause."