Sen. Barack Obama swept to victory in the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, pushing his chief rival, N.Y. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to third place and taking a major stride in a historic bid to become the nation’s first black president.

Obama, 46, and a first-term senator from Illinois, eased past a high-powered field that included Clinton, the former first lady, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee.

“On this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do,” Obama told wildly cheering, chanting supporters Thursday night. “We are choosing hope over fear; we are choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

Obama’s victory over Clinton and Edwards suggested a hunger among Democrats for a new voice and perhaps a new approach to politics. His historic victory also proved that a black man running for president can have success among voters in a predominantly white state.

Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of change in Washington, gained 38 percent support among caucus-goers. Edwards, who ran promising to battle the special interests in the capital, and Clinton, who stressed her experience, were locked in a razor-close race much of the night, ending up with with Edwards over Clinton, 30 percent to 29 percent.

Obama beat Clinton by nine percentage points, and he likely now will have to duel state by state, probably with her. She has the money and organizational support around the country to fight on; Edwards does not, and he may well find that his loss in Iowa dries up his limited resources. But the third-place showing was a serious blow to Clinton, who just a few months ago was crowned the front-runner by major media.

Craig Kirby, a senior Democratic political strategist, said Americans are desperate for change.

“Iowa has taught us that traditional politics has changed,” Kirby told Thursday night. “The people of Iowa have showcased democracy, and this showcase has guaranteed the opportunity for many more to participate.”

“Sen. Barack Obama’s message of change has ushered and excited many new people to participate in our political process,” Kirby said. “More importantly, Sen. Obama is a leader of today, and leaders must address the challenges of their day. It makes no sense to answer questions that no one is asking or answer questions that have already been addressed. America has to look ahead to its new day.”

Obama told a raucous victory rally his triumph showed that in “big cities and small towns, you came together to say, ‘We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come.'”

Projections estimated that 236,000 Democrats showed up on a cold midwinter’s night, shattering the previous mark of 124,000.

Turnout was also up on the Republican side, where projections showed about 114,000 people taking part. The last previous contested Republican caucuses in 2000 drew over 85,000 participants.

His victory in 95 percent white Iowa proved that he could appeal across racial lines and even draw women away from Clinton, despite her push for them to make her the first female president. Next he’ll try to build on his record in New Hampshire, which is 96 percent white. The state’s primary election is Tuesday.

Nearly a quarter of Democratic caucus-goers interviewed in the entrance poll were under 30 years old, a jump from 2004. Obama got 57 percent of the vote from the under-30 crowd, compared with just 14 percent for Edwards and 11 percent for Clinton. Twenty-eight percent of Obama’s support came from the over-30 set, according to a survey of voters entering the caucuses by The Associated Press and the television networks.

Obama also won the greatest percentages of independents, first-time caucus-goers, self-identified liberals and — most troubling for Clinton — women. Obama got 35 percent of women voters, compared to 30 percent for Clinton and 23 percent for Edwards. This despite the fact that Clinton focused her campaign on bringing fellow women to the polls.

Rev. Jesse Jackson took note that “this is the 40th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tonight, he would proud of Barack, proud of Iowa and proud of America.”

Democratic consultant Jamal Simmons said Obama’s victory “proves that America is changing when it comes to race and politics.”

“Winning in Iowa is not winning the nomination, but is very significant,” Simmons said. “Tonight, Barack Obama has made it more true that every black child in America can do whatever they want to if they work hard for it — really.”

Roland Martin, a political analyst for CNN, said Obama is becoming more “comfortable” campaigning and noted that Obama easily weaved the civil rights movement into victory speech Thursday.

Martin added that behind Obama on stage in Iowa — and in the cheering crowd — was a “rainbow” or supporters which symbolized Obama’s diverse constituency and his ability to reach out to a multi-cultural America. He predicted that Obama’s campaign will continue to resonate with voters because of Obama’s message of hope and change.

On Obama, The Washington Post reported: “Seeking to become the first African American president, he found a receptive audience nationally for his candidacy almost from the moment he announced last winter, and he proved his mettle in this largely white and rural state.”

“They said this day would never come,” Obama said at his Thursday night rally. “They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided — too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.” He continued, “We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”

Among Republicans, Mike Huckabee rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians to win the opening round in the 2008 campaign for the White House.

Huckabee, a preacher turned politician, handily defeated Mitt Romney despite being outspent by tens of millions of dollars, and deciding in the campaign’s final days to scrap a television commercial that would have assailed the former Massachusetts governor.

Huckabee won 34 percent support, compared to 25 percent for Romney. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain battled for third place.

Romney sought to frame his defeat as something less than that, saying he had trailed Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, 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.

Michelle D. Bernard, a black conservative and president & CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Women’s Forum, said the results of the Iowa caucases demonstrate why America is the greatest nation on earth.

“Although just a snapshot in time, the Democratic and Republican voters of Iowa have shown the world that America has changed in its historic attitudes towards race and gender, that we are truly a government of the people. And it would appear that the people want change,” Bernard told

“A black man won the majority of votes of Democratic voters in an overwhelmingly white state — a feat many thought impossible,” she said. “Republican voters ignored conventional wisdom and voted for man many pundits believed had no chance whatsoever of winning in Iowa or anywhere else.”

Edwards tried to put the best face on a disappointing loss in the Iowa Democratic caucus, but vowed a vigorous campaign against Obama in New Hampshire.

“The status quo lost, and change won,” Edwards told a crowded ballroom of supporters. He said he would go to New Hampshire “to determine who’s best suited to bring about the change this country so desperately needs.”

The former senator made clear that he will portray himself as more willing than Obama to battle the “corporate greed” that Edwards has condemned repeatedly.

“Thank you for second place,” he said, taking solace in edging out Clinton.

Clinton, meanwhile, unbowed by her third-place finish, hailed a “great night for Democrats” and said the strong turnout pointed for sure to the election of a Democratic president in November. She said she would “keep pushing as hard as we can.”

Clinton, who had once held a commanding lead in polls in Iowa, congratulated Obama and Edwards. She promised cheering supporters she would take “this enthusiasm and go tonight to New Hampshire.”

“We’re going to keep pushing as hard as we can,” she said. Supporters chanted, “Hillary, Hillary.”

With former President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, standing to one side of her and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the other, Clinton said, “I am so ready for the rest of this campaign, and I am so ready to lead.”

“This is a great night for Democrats. We have seen an unprecedented turnout here in Iowa, and that is good news because today we are sending a clear message that we are going to have change and that change will be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009.”

David Gergen, a former White House aide under Republican and the Clinton administrations, pointed out that Iowa was not a strong state for Clinton from the start.

“The Clintons are nothing if not resilient,” he said. “They will fight back. For Barack Obama, this is a personal triumph. For an African-American to go into a state that’s 95 percent white and win against Mrs. Clinton is an absolutely remarkable victory.”

Iowans rendered their judgments in meetings at 1,781 precincts from Adel to Zwingle, in schools, firehouses and community centers where the candidates themselves could not follow.

In interviews as they entered the caucuses, more than half of all the Republicans said they were either born-again or evangelical Christians, and they liked Huckabee more than any of his rivals. Romney led handily among the balance of the Iowa Republican voters, according to the survey.

About half the Democratic caucus-goers said a candidate’s ability to bring about needed change was the most important factor as they made up their minds, according to the entrance interviews by The Associated Press and the television networks.

“The unprecedented grassroots enthusiasm for Democrats we saw today shows that piece by piece, we are rebuilding our Party,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. “As we head towards November, it’s clear that Americans will elect a Democratic president to bring our country the change we need.”

Change was Obama’s calling card in the arduous campaign for Iowa’s backing. Fewer voters cited experience, which Clinton said was her strong suit, or a candidate’s chance of capturing the White House or ability to care about people like the voters themselves.

Bernard told it was the issues that mattered most to voters in Iowa, and the process transcended race.

“If the rest of the nation follows Iowa’s lead, we will see that conventional wisdom is not always correct — whites will vote for a black candidate; women are above gender politics, and message and the messenger matter above all else,” Bernard said.

“Clearly, neither the Republican nor the Democratic races ended tonight,” she added. “As they look to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, each of the candidates will have to ask and answer the question: What does America really want?”