Des Moines--Sounding like the Baptist preacher that he is, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee connected emotionally with his crowd gathered for Thursday night's victory party in a way other Republican presidential candidates could only pray about.
"I wasn't sure if I could ever love a state as much as I love my home state -- but I love Iowa," the winner of the GOP Iowa caucus told an overflow crowd at the Embassy Suites Hotel on the banks of the Des Moines River.
"Tonight is a celebration for everyone on our team; so many of you who traveled all across America to be here - I'm amazed! I'm encouraged," said Huckabee, who was only warming up. "Tonight is a new day in America politics and a new day is needed for America just like a new day is needed in American government. And tonight, it starts here in Iowa but it doesn't end here. It ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue... Tonight is it's not about me, it's about the we."
The crowd ate it up.
Huckabee went on to thank the voters and his family, including his children, all of whom worked in the campaign. "We didn't know how it was going to turn out. I want to thank the ones who voted for me and the ones who didn't -- a few I even convinced to vote for me," Huckabee said. "I would like to thank my wife, Janet, who was the First Lady of Arkansas, and she'll be a wonderful First Lady of the country."
Huckabee grabbed 34% of the vote, with the multi-millionaire former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, taking 25%, followed by Senator John McCain and former Senator Fred Thompson; each scoring 13% of the total caucus vote. However, the trend could have been predicted by the Windsor Heights 1 Republican caucus tonight:
There Huckabee handily won with 45 votes out of 141. John McCain was second with 29 votes, and Mitt Romney placed third place with 23 votes. The second tier candidates still scored well; Fred Thompson with 18 votes, Ron Paul with 16, and Rudy Giuliani scored last place with 10 votes.
Meeting at the Windsor Presbyterian Church on University Avenue in Windsor Heights, a middle-class suburban neighborhood known for their 1930 brick houses and 1950 sprawling ranches, the Republicans listened to the speeches by the representatives from all the six presidential candidates.
Wearing the Romney navy blue colors, Kim Strong and her husband, Jim drove here from Louisville, Kentucky - at their own expense - to help Romney with a win in Iowa.
Jim Strong read a prepared speech from the Romney campaign outlining just why he's the best presidential contender, but unfortunately for the Strongs, the caucus voters thought otherwise.
The first activist OffTheBus spoke with during the registration portion of the evening, GOP volunteer and activist, Cathy Sorenson and she predicted a good showing for Huckabee, adding:
"I'm going to caucus for Governor Huckabee because some very good friends of mine got me interested in him and I like what he did in Arkansas. He seems to have risen above the rest."
Cathy Sorenson is a stay-at-home mother and homeschooler, whose last child just wrapped up his GED last spring and is now attending Des Moines Community College, but will join his home schooled sister at Iowa State University next year.
"Huckabee's faith is just one part of why he's my favorite candidate. The negative stuff the press has reported doesn't bother me, unless it's true. He has the attributes; the faith, his experience on the job in Arkansas, the whole package to be a good president," said Sorenson.
Nearly twice as many as expected attended the Windsor Heights 1 Republican caucus. After the voting, only a handful stayed to knock-out and approve their platform that will be taken to the district convention.
The aggregate vote total from all 1,780 precinct caucuses are called into the State GOP Des Moines Convention Center. This is just one caucus but I can't help but think this is happening all over the state...and in fact, it was.
Talk about weird: I was told by a Ron Paul supporter who made the pitch for his candidate that two other Paul supporters told him they weren't going to caucus with the Republicans because they wanted to vote against Hillary Clinton. They caucused at Windsor Elementary School just a few blocks from here.
Chris Hagenow, the precinct caucus chairman of Windsor Heights 1, who is not affiliated with any candidate, told OffTheBus, "I was a little surprised with Romney. He was so well-organized all year and then this past week, I felt a John McCain surge. I think McCain took some votes away from Romney."
This loss to Huckabee has thrown a big wrench into Romney's plans to capture his party's nomination. He has poured $12 million of his own money into his campaign and spent the better part of two years campaigning in Iowa, before Huckabee began his precipitous surge.
What Huckabee had going for him was not money - it was heart. He has the natural ability to connect with his audience and possesses an engaging, authentic personality in contrast to the stiff Romney, who has struggled to emotionally connect with Iowa voters despite owning the best ground organization money, could buy. Mitt has an emotional gap problem that will follow him to the next primary states.
But Huckabee's win in Iowa may be reminiscent of the Pat Robertson win in 1988. Just as Robertson was buoyed by the Born Agains, Huckabee was also supported by the Evangelicals and homeschoolers like Cathy Sorenson and her friends.
However, Huckabee only appealed to 14% (according to CNN) of the non-Evangelicals in Iowa. As he flies out of Iowa tonight and spends the next five days trying to win over the New Hampshire voters, this could be a huge problem for the preacher politician with 'Mo' on his side but a religious gap in the Granite State.
According to Steve Roberts, the Iowa representative to the National Republican Party representative and former Chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, "It's very exciting to see Huckabee win tonight but he still has to raise enough money to stay in the race and just as important, he has to broaden his support."
Romney pushes onto New Hampshire tonight, where he will duke it out with Senator John McCain for the top ticket and in a state where Huckabee remains a distant player in this next important stop toward the presidential nomination.