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."
As the returns began to trickle in, a spontaneous prayer circle broke out at the Des Moines Embassy Suites, where Huckabee supporters were congregating. The group prayed for Huckabee's victory as well as some of his more conservative views — including an end to abortion and homosexuality.
Ed Rollins, Huckabee's campaign chairman and a former Reagan adviser who as recently as Wednesday was quoted as saying his wanted to kick Romney's teeth out, made a direct comparison between the Obama and Huckabee victories.
"Oh, absolutely," Rollins told ABC News when asked about the two victories. "People in this part of the country want change. They want change." Rollins predicted a 5-point victory shortly after the caucus process began.
After the his victory speech, Huckabee told ABC News that his campaign appeals to more than just evangelical Christians — everyone from "working-class schoolteachers" to "gun owners."
Romney's Expensive Campaign Falls Short
On the losing side of the front-runner matchup was Romney, a Mormon who spent more days in Iowa and more dollars on Iowa voters that any opponent in the Republican field in his quest for votes. Because of the time and money he's dumped into this first measurement of the American electorate, the expectations for a victory were high, and anything less is considered, for now, deflating.
Romney, whose reported fortune is $250 million, has dumped more than $17 million of his own money into his campaign, which spent more than $7 million on advertising in Iowa alone. That compares with about $1.4 million spent on ads in Iowa by Huckabee.
As the first reports of Huckabee inching off to an early lead came in, Romney said at a caucusing precinct in West Des Moines that tonight was only "the first inning in a 50-inning ball game."
"So, you know, you want to get on base the first inning," Romney said, "but we're planning on doing well."
After Romney's second-place finish was announced, Kevin Madden, his national spokesman, said that the campaign was "very proud and excited by our position in this state." The "investment" in Iowa, Madden said, would pay off across the country, and the winner, Huckabee, will face difficulty beyond the Hawkeye State.
Madden also acknowledged that the Huckabee and Obama victories were a clear indication that "Washington lost" in the Iowa caucus.
In Romney's speech after the Huckabee victory was announced, the former Massachusetts governor expressed thanks and pledged to return to Iowa as the Republican Party's presidential nominee. "I'm planning on coming back in the general election when we take on whoever it is the Democrats nominate in the general election and beat them," he said.
Huckabee and Romney and their staffs traded sharp jabs in the days leading up to tonight, jabbing and counter-jabbing one another daily. Earlier this week, in one of the more unusual bits of political theater, Huckabee pulled a TV ad from the airwaves that he said was too negative regarding his chief Iowa opponent, but he first held a press conference to show the ad to the media.
And this morning, in another example of political fisticuffs, Romney hit back at the comment in The Washington Post by Rollins that made light of his own carefully coifed look and telling Rollins "just don't touch the hair."
With just hours to the caucusing, the Huckabee campaign called for an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service into a series of anonymous letters that have been sent to Iowa pastors warning them to stay out of the electoral process. Although the implication was to accuse the Romney supporters of a dirty trick, there was no indication Thursday that any campaign was involved in mailing the letters.
Rest of GOP Field Too Tight to Call
Third place in the Republican race will be key, as the front-runners were not the only ones fighting hard for every Iowan's support.
War hero and Sen. John McCain of Arizona has spent most of the last several months ignoring Iowa and gearing up instead for next week's first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Yet, while the two front-runners sling mud at each other, McCain has seen a rise in his Iowa poll numbers in recent days and his double-digit performance will likely be considered solid.
While he spent today in New Hampshire, he campaigned in Iowa Wednesday. A strong finish in Iowa could propel McCain into a front-runner position in New Hampshire.
McCain, whom Huckabee has defended during recent attacks by Romney, made the first candidate statement after the announcement of Huckabee's victory in Iowa.
McCain congratulated Huckabee, and then took an apparent shot at Romney. "The lesson [of Iowa] is one, that you can't buy an election in Iowa, and negative campaigns don't work," McCain said. "They don't work there in Iowa, and they don't work here in New Hampshire."
For Fred Thomspon, the former Tennessee senator and actor, his double-digit performance might knock some life back into a flagging campaign that has never met the early expectations surrounding the buzz of his possible candidacy. Finishing in the bottom of the Iowa heap, some said, might mean an early exit for the "Law and Order" star. But Thompson put that idea to rest late Thursday night, telling supporters that he had "another dance" in him.
The 10 percent vote received by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, will likely keep the libertarian politician in the race and could be a reflection of his fundraising success and online organization.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani chose not to focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead, his campaign strategy looked to larger states, such as Florida, whose primaries come in a few weeks. He has not been polling competitively among Iowa voters. And today, he underscored his strategy by spending the day in Florida — a state, he reminded reporters, that has far more Republican voters than the total who will cast ballots from both parties in Iowa.
Giuliani, like McCain, was quick to congratulate the night's winner, calling the victory "hard-fought." He also emphasized his campaign's broader focus. "Rudy is the only Republican candidate who can not only win the primary and general elections but will turn purple states red," his campaign said in a statement.
And finally, there is Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who, despite being the GOP long shot, trailing in nearly all polls, maintains that it's "an open race" — if only he had more money and publicity. Unlike some of the weaker candidates in the Democratic race who bowed out after Thursday night's caucus results, Hunter made no such announcement.
The Republican caucuses in Iowa differ procedurally from the Democratic caucuses in that there are no viability requirements — votes don't swing to second-choice candidates if a candidate doesn't register enough support in the first round of voting. For Iowa Republicans, the only thing that counts is individual votes.
At stake tonight? Thirty-seven delegates to next summer's Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
ABC News' Jake Tapper, John Berman, Kevin Chupka, Matt Stuart and Ron Claiborne contributed to this report.