AJC in Iowa: At long last, presidential candidates face the voters

Des Moines, Iowa - Iowa voters long flirted with the populist-fueled campaign of Donald Trump. But when it came time to caucus, Iowa Republicans gave Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz a huge victory in the nation’s first vote.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, were deadlocked in a nail-biter with 90 percent of precincts reporting.

Trump and Sanders tapped into a deep vein of voter frustration with Washington, captivating raucous crowds at rallies across Iowa with brash promises to remake the federal government.

Read more about the vote by clicking here. And follow the race with us tonight as the candidates finally face the voters. We'll be posting in this space along with the AJC's Jim Galloway and Tamar Hallerman.

Updated 10:52: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were deadlocked in the lead-up to midnight with 93 percent of precincts reporting.

Clinton stopped short of declaring victory but also said she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

“I want you to know I will keep doing what I have done my entire life, I will keep standing up and fighting for you,” Clinton told supporters.

Updated 10:35: In his victory speech, a jubilant Ted Cruz ran through his greatest hits, invoking scripture and the Constitution while slamming the media and the political establishment of both parties.

“Tonight Iowa has proclaimed to the world: ‘morning is coming,’” said Cruz, who was flanked by his wife Heidi and conservative figurehead Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

“Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee won’t be chosen by the media.. the establishment, the lobbyists...” he said.

Cruz said he won more votes Monday evening than any other Republican candidate in the history of the Iowa caucuses.

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Updated 10:23: Georgia Democrats were eager to pounce on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won a big victory in the Iowa caucus.

From spokesman Michael Smith:

“Ted Cruz is everything that is wrong with politics, and his win in Iowa only proves that the gods of zealotry and poor taste have gained ascendency in today’s Republican Party. This guy led the government shutdown that cost our economy a staggering $24 billion. Why on Earth would we place our nation’s future in the hands of such a capricious and irresponsible opportunist?

Updated 10:20: Republican members of Georgia’s congressional delegation have largely stayed out of the GOP presidential race, but several began dipping in their toes Monday.

Tifton Republican Rep. Austin Scott campaigned for Sen. Marco Rubio in Iowa Monday.

"It is clear that this is coming down to a three-man race. The primary issue in November will be national security and Marco Rubio is clearly the candidate with the experience and record to keep us safe," said Scott.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, meanwhile, cheered Sen. Ted Cruz’ win.

“I congratulate Ted Cruz on his first place finish in Iowa. I am confident that the GOP nominee will defeat either Socialist Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, if she isn’t indicted first. I called for her to drop out of this race and half of the Democrats in Iowa appear to agree with me,” Collins said in an e-mailed statement provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Georgia’s two senators have yet to endorse a candidate, which is not unusual given the crowded presidential field. Endorsing a candidate so early could alienate their constituents.

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Updated 9:52: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz swept to a big victory in Iowa's caucuses, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio surges to a surprisingly strong third-place finish by consolidating support among mainstream Republicans.

Cruz was seen as virtually tied with Republican rival Donald Trump, but the first term senator leveraged his significant ground operation to head into the tail part of the evening with a four point lead over the real estate mogul.

The win gives Cruz major momentum heading into next week’s New Hampshire primary, which will help set the tone for the races to follow, including Georgia’s March 1 contest.

Rubio said in a speech to supporters he will be the GOP nominee for president because of the Iowa results.

And Trump seemed confident about his chances in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“We will go on to get the Republican nomination and we will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie or whoever else they throw up there,” he said.

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Updated 9:40: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus, also is suspending his campaign after a dismal showing.

Huckabee’s campaign never fully got off the ground as Cruz and Trump sucked up his bread-and-butter evangelical constituency. Huckabee is the second candidate to announce he was suspending his campaign Monday. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said he would abandon his quest for the Democratic nomination earlier in the evening.

Updated 9:30 p.m. Several media outlets, including CNN, project that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has won the caucus.

Updated 9 p.m.: CNN is reporting that Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley will suspend his campaign later tonight. Early precinct results from Iowa have the former Maryland Gov. currently polling at 0 percent.

Updated 8:45 p.m. Tamar brings us this FLASHBACK:

Wall Street Journal headline, dated Jan. 4, 2008: “Iowa Isn’t That Important, Clinton Staffers Say.”

“The worst thing would be to over count Iowa and its importance,” said chief strategist Mark Penn, just hours after the New York senator finished in a disappointing third place, behind Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

….

Most people inside the Clinton camp are shrugging off Iowa all together. “Iowa is so small, it’s like a mayor’s race in a medium-sized city,” traveling press secretary Jay Carson said. “It wouldn’t be wise to put too much emphasis on it.”

H/t Politico’s Michael Crowley.

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Updated 8:25 p.m.: Carson's campaign had to do what no presidential contender wants to do while voting is happening: Issue a statement that the candidate is not dropping out of the race.

From spokesman Larry Ross:

Contrary to false media reports, Dr. Ben Carson is not suspending his presidential campaign, which is stronger than ever. After spending 18 consecutive days on the campaign trail, Dr. Carson needs to go home and get a fresh set of clothes. He will be departing Des Moines later tonight to avoid the snow storm and will be back on the trail Wednesday. We look forward to tonight's caucus results and to meaningful debates in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

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Posted 8:20 p.m.: Our colleague Tamar Hallerman notes that the early results indicating strong showings for Cruz, Trump and Clinton are notoriously unreliable - so hang in there.

The Associated Press had the Texas Senator squeaking past the real estate mogul, 30 percent to 27.2 percent. Rubio garnered nearly 19 percent of the vote. Across the aisle, Clinton led Sanders, 51.5 percent to 48 percent.

It’s easy to glance at those numbers and think it’s a done deal, but there is still plenty that could change by night’s end. Only 17 percent of GOP precincts have reported so far, and given how close that race is plenty could change.

While more than one-third of Democratic precincts have reported their results, their caucuses are notoriously boisterous affairs in which supporters of different candidates publicly convince voters to switch allegiances. It may be hours before we have a final sense of where the Democrats are.

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Posted 8:02 p.m.: We're going to go out on a limb here and predict that former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore won't prevail. The "other" category is outpacing him in early results.

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Posted 7:50 p.m.: The political world revolves around Iowa tonight, but don't forget the race will shift to the South in a week. And Rubio has just picked up a big endorsement in South Carolina.

From Politico: Marco Rubio is expected to secure the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on Tuesday, according to three sources.

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Posted 7:30 p.m.: Republican frontrunner Donald Trump made a personal appeal to a few hundred caucusgoers in West Des Moines.

"I’m doing the right thing for you. I don’t need their money. I don’t want their money," he said. "I say that not in a braggadocios way. I say that because that’s the kind of thinking America needs."

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Posted 7:15 p.m. This is not exactly the message that Ben Carson's campaign wants to send to voters as they begin to caucus.

From Salon:

CNN is reporting that instead of heading to New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses tonight, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson will be headed home to Florida to — at least according to his campaign representative — prepare for the National Prayer Breakfast.

The retired neurosurgeon has slipped from the lead in polls in Iowa to fourth place. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Cruz and Trump are all aiming to steal away his supporters tonight.

***

Des Moines, Iowa – Insurgent populists on opposite sides of the political spectrum face a momentous first test tonight as Iowans finally head to the caucuses in a vote that's sure to shake up an already wild presidential election.

Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have both tapped into a deep vein of voter frustration with Washington, captivating huge crowds at rallies across Iowa with brash promises to remake the federal government.

The Iowans preparing to caucus tonight will decide whether the surge of enthusiasm for their candidacies, and the polls that show both in tight races with their chief rivals, translates into actual votes. The low-turnout caucus system, which requires voters to invest at least an hour on a cold winter night, typically rewards campaign discipline and organization.

Trump appears to have a slim lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has crisscrossed each of Iowa's 99 counties with a message of ideologically purity and a call for a religious awakening that otherwise would give him huge advantages in Iowa's overwhelmingly conservative and evangelical electorate.

But the tough-talking billionaire has struck a chord with Iowa Republicans with his promises to rebuild America's economy, oust undocumented immigrants and strengthen the nation's military.

“I guess we’re tired of the crap,” said Shannon Barton, who plans to be a first-time caucus voter on Monday. “There’s so much political nonsense. And Trump’s an action taker.”

Sanders, a Vermont senator, is threatening former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's aura of inevitability with a blend of economic populism aimed at young and first-time liberal voters with promises to expand federal government with a massive jobs program. It's the same voter bloc that powered Barack Obama to a surprising victory over Clinton in 2008 - and eventually propelled him to victory.

“He’s going to win. He’s doing a novel thing - he’s telling the truth in American politics,” said Richard Napieralski, who was among the 1,700 who packed a Des Moines gym for Sanders. “He’s struck a nerve because he’s never lost his idealism.”

Follow the race with us tonight - the caucuses open at 8 p.m. Eastern - as the candidates finally face the voters. We'll be posting in this space along with the AJC's Jim Galloway and Tamar Hallerman.

Read up on some of our past stories here:

AJC in Iowa: What to watch at tonight’s caucus

The Georgia presidential primary is one month away

AJC in Iowa: Caucus vote could hold clues for Georgia

Quiz: How well do you know the Iowa caucuses?

One more thing Donald Trump has broken: The GOP’s evangelical base

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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