DES MOINES - Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee roared to a resounding first place finish in Iowa's Republican caucuses Thursday, upending the political order by trouncing one-time front runner Mitt Romney.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who had poured more than $7 million into the Iowa contest, wound up with about one quarter of the caucus vote compared to Huckabee, who spent about $300,000 and got about 34 percent.
"I love Iowa," a joyous Huckabee said as he greeted hundreds of supporters jammed into a small hotel ballroom chanting "We like Mike."
"Tonight we have seen a new day in American politics," Huckabee said. "It starts here in Iowa, but it ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
A former Baptist preacher, Huckabee gave an address rich with notes of religion and reconciliation. "The challenge is to bring this country together," he said. It's not about "hating those who are in front of us. It's about loving those behind us."
In a nod to the social conservatives who were his foot soldiers across Iowa, Huckabee said: "The greatest generation doesn't have to be the ones behind us. The greatest generation can be those who have yet even to be born."
Huckabee predicted that his upset win would "start a prairie fire of new hope and zeal" in a country that he said hungered for leadership that knew it was "not elected to be part of the ruling class ... but to be part of the serving class."
Selling a potent combination of executive experience wrapped in a genial religious piety, Huckabee has been the Cinderella story of the caucuses for months. Long mired with other also-rans far behind better-known front-runners, the former Baptist minister rocketed to the top of the polls, charming Iowa's heavily evangelical Republican base with the earnestness of a preacher and timing of a comic.
The victory seems likely to help Huckabee build momentum for New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary just days away. Recent polls there have shown him far behind.
"This is the beginning of a great march to the presidency," said Huckabee's national campaign chairman, Ed Rollins. A former political adviser to Ronald Reagan, Rollins said Iowa was supposed to be the race where "if you weren't rich and you weren't famous you couldn't be competitive."
But he said Iowans didn't pay attention to the millions of dollars spent in negative advertising. Huckabee, he said, ignored his advisers and said, "I'm not going to do it their way."
Romney saw lead vanish
Romney, despite a well-organized, statewide network and a $7 million ad campaign, watched his once-considerable lead in Iowa wither as religious conservatives flocked to a rival who had neither.
But Romney appeared to have regained some ground in recent days, after launching bare-knuckled ads that attacked Huckabee's record.
Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee by more than 20 points a few weeks ago. "I've been pleased that I've been able to make up ground, and I intend to keep making up ground, not just here but across the country," he said.
McCain, Thompson fight for third
In New Hampshire, Romney must try to overtake Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has staged a near Lazarus-like comeback in recent weeks.
McCain, perhaps looking ahead to that match-up, congratulated Huckabee and said the outcome shows that negative campaigns -- such as Romney's -- are doomed to fail.
McCain said civility is one of the lessons to take from Iowa's results.
"One, you can't buy an election in Iowa," said McCain, whose own financial woes have affected his campaign. "And two, negative campaigns don't work. They don't work there and they don't work ... in New Hampshire."
As the evening progressed McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson were locked in a close battle for third place, which each considers key.
Thompson spent much of the day debunking persistent rumors that he would fold his candidacy if he failed to place third in Iowa.
Paul, not Giuliani, close behind
As expected, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew little support, having virtually pulled up stakes in Iowa in recent weeks to make a stand in Florida's end-of-January primary.
But making his presence felt was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose maverick libertarian candidacy, fueled by a strong television ad presence, has surprised party regulars. Paul was running close behind Thompson and McCain as the evening wore on.
At the Huckabee victory party, Steve Deace of West Des Moines said the outcome proved the value of Iowa's kickoff role in the presidential campaign.
"Huckabee has the chemistry and the message," Deace said. "This shows that money doesn't matter. It's what the Iowa caucuses are really all about.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288