Des Moines - After a stunning defeat and finishing third in Thursday night's Democratic caucuses, Senator Hillary Clinton congratulated Barack Obama and John Edwards, and vowed to jumpstart her national campaign and win her party's nomination for president.
"I am ready as I can be," Clinton told a crowd of a few hundred invited guests at a downtown hotel ballroom. "We're going to take this enthusiasm and go to New Hampshire."
But, as she spoke, shock and despair seemed to replace enthusiasm in the Clinton campaign. Months ago, the New York senator rolled into Iowa with an aura and attitude of invincibility. She now leaves the state for next Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire after suffering a humiliating finish nine points behind Obama and one point below Edwards.
Clinton was joined on the stage by her husband Bill Clinton and a pack of other Democratic luminaries including former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former General Wesley Clark and Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles.
As the TV networks projected Obama's insurgent victory about 90 minutes after the opening of the 7 p.m. caucuses, Clinton's rented ballroom seemed the loneliest place in town. Not a single guest was seen on the cordoned-off floor. And then shortly after the network projection was broadcast, the tightly disciplined Clinton campaign literally assembled the crowd for the batteries of TV cameras in the room.
Putting the best face on her stinging defeat, Clinton attached herself to what she called the "clear message of change" manifested in the massive Democratic turnout. After congratulating her two top rivals she claimed that "together we have presented the case for change" and declared the results to be "a great night for Democrats." Both Obama and Edwards, however, vigorously counterpoised themselves as agents of profound change and generational turnover against an ossified status quo embodied by Clinton.
The rumblings of Clinton's defeat could be sensed in the past few days as a sense of momentum and swelling crowds fueled the numerous campaign events staged by Obama and Edwards as they feverishly crisscrossed the state.
A few hours before the caucusing began Thursday night, Bill and Hillary Clinton were seen striding through the Hotel Fort Des Moines with a look of consternation on their faces.
The caucuses marked the culmination of a dispiriting week for the Clintons as a series of polls presaged a possible Obama victory -- so long as a projected massive turnout of young and first-time caucus-goers materialized. And so it did with an estimated 212,000 Democrats showing up to caucus, almost twice as many as in 2004.
The groundswell of Democrats responding to Obama's and Edwards' call for "hope" and "change," respectively, flooded and stalled the vaunted, fine-tuned Clinton electoral machine. The enormous institutional and organizational power of the New York senator's campaign - ranging from a laundry list of endorsements by elected officials to the celebrity clout of Bill Clinton to a brigade of hundreds of snow-shovelers who cleared the driveways of elderly caucus-goers--wasn't enough to overcome the emotional call to a new political dynamic that seemed to turbo-charge the Obama campaign.
As soon as the doors to the more than 1,700 caucus sites opened, there was a clear foreboding of Clinton's coming defeat. Long lines of caucusers, shortage of registration forms for first-timers, and standing-room-only crowds marked the high tide of a turnout tsunami in favor of Obama.
The caucus at one northwest Des Moines precinct seemed a microcosm of the political drama that rattled the entire state on Thursday night. Residents of Precinct 9 waited patiently in line to caucus as poll workers were overcome by the sheer scope of the turnout. As the 125 Iowans in the room dispersed into separate groups supporting different candidates, a visibly striking generational gap slashed the room.
With a mixed group of about 25 Edwards supporters in the middle, on the right side of the room sat about 40 mostly white-haired and subdued Clinton adherents. On the left side of the high school classroom, about 60 decidedly much younger, boisterous and ramped-up Obama supporters gathered in noisy clumps. "I've never caucused before but I like everything Obama has to say," said 30-year-old machinist Chris Augustine. Typical of exactly the kind of voter the Obama campaign had hoped to mobilize, he added: "For me, Obama is the un-politician. If it comes down to Hillary Clinton versus a Republican in November, I would rather vote for the Republican. There's nothing Clinton could do to prove she's really different than the same old, same old of the past."