Buoyed by big wins in Iowa, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee swept into New Hampshire on Friday counting on momentum to propel them toward the next prize in the US presidential race.
Hoarse from nonstop campaigning, Obama immediately began appealing for support from New Hampshire's undecided voters who could make the difference in the state's vote next Tuesday. "We're coming after you -- you, yeah. I'm coming after you," Obama told a rally in Portsmouth after asking for a show of hands of those undecided among the crowd of 1,000 people. About 100 raised their hands. My throat is still a little torn up but my spirits are high," said Obama who drew heavily on support from Democrats in mostly white Iowa in his drive to become the first black US president.
Iowa's caucuses kicked off a state-by state process to pick the Democratic and Republican candidates to run in the November presidential election to replace President George W Bush. The prize for the Iowa winners is valuable momentum and at least a temporary claim to the front-runner's slot.
Huckabee, 52, a former governor of Arkansas and former Baptist preacher, was the surprise Republican winner in Iowa. Rival Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who would be the first Mormon president, had outspent Huckabee in Iowa by a 20-to-1 margin and had led the polls there for months until a late Huckabee surge.
Political pundits do not give Huckabee, who garnered strong support from evangelical Christians in Iowa, much of a chance in New Hampshire, giving him plenty of room to make another surprise showing. "We certainly come into this scene with momentum," Huckabee told NBC's "Today" show. "We also know that we may not win New Hampshire although who knows, we might. We've overperformed rather than underperformed every step of this journey."
Democrat Hillary Clinton, suddenly bounced from her front-runner status after coming in third in Iowa behind Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, stuck with her argument that she has the experience to become president.
Clinton, 60, a New York senator who would be the first woman U.S. president and who has for months occupied a commanding front-runner's position in national opinion polls for the Democratic nomination, has argued the 46-year-old Obama lacks the experience to take on the challenges facing the next White House occupant.
At a rally in Nashua, she urged voters to think about who would be the best candidate to bring about change "based not only on a leap of faith."
She said Democrats also needed a candidate "who will be able to withstand the Republican attack machine to get elected in the first place."
Asked how disappointed she was about Iowa, Clinton told reporters at a cafe in Manchester: "I was never a front-runner of any significance in Iowa. I knew it was always going to be hard, it has a lot of difficulties that I knew were there in terms of my candidacy."
Calls for a change from politics as usual -- including deep partisan divisions -- marked the approaches by both Obama and Huckabee in sealing victory in Iowa, signaling an American desire to break from the Bush administration.
Economic woes appear likely to play prominently in the campaign amid recession fears over the imploding housing market. The U.S. economy created a scant 18,000 jobs in December, far fewer than the predicted 70,000. Unemployment jumped to 5 percent, the highest since November 2005.
Wall Street gave a passing glance on Friday to the election kickoff in Iowa, and didn't particularly like what it saw from Huckabee or Obama.
Financial markets typically feel more comfortable with Republicans in power because they are generally more friendly to business on such issues as taxes and regulation, but Huckabee doesn't fit that mold.
The concern with Obama was that polls show him as more electable than Clinton in November, raising investors' worries that Democrats would end up in control of both Congress and the White House.
ROMNEY TAKES ON MCCAIN
Romney, whose lead in New Hampshire is challenged by Arizona Sen. John McCain, took aim at his chief rival in the state. Romney wanted to make a one-two punch in Iowa and New Hampshire to seize control of the Republican race but now is in trouble, challenged by both Huckabee and McCain, whose penchant for straight talk appeals to the flinty nature of the people here.
Romney told MSNBC McCain's past opposition to Bush tax cuts and support for a plan to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship will work against him in New Hampshire and help Romney.
"I think you're going to hear about it more, and I think the people in New Hampshire will find that very troubling," he said.
McCain responded on Fox News Channel: "I would hope that Governor Romney might have learned a lesson last night that negative attack ads don't work, and let's have a positive campaign here."
A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Friday gave Clinton and McCain leads in New Hampshire, but the polling was done before Iowa's contest on Thursday.
The Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll put Obama within striking distance of Clinton in New Hampshire. She led Obama 32 percent to 26 percent. Edwards was at 20 percent and no other Democrat was in double digits.
The 2008 campaign is the most open presidential race in more than 50 years, with no sitting president or vice president seeking their party's nomination, and the Iowa contest was the most hotly contested in the state's history.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Des Moines and Joanne Kenen and Emily Kaiser in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland, Editing by Frances Kerry) (For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ )