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A pair of stunning upset victories in Iowa last night sent the race for the White House into disarray. Illinois Democrat Barack Obama toppled Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and New York senator. It was an historic triumph for the first black American to emerge as a leading candidate for one of the two main parties.

Republican Mike Huckabee, the folksy Baptist from Arkansas, surged to an upset win, toppling the establishment front-runner Mitt Romney.

The triumph by Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who soared from nowhere to victory in Iowa in fewer than 90 days, was also good news for Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican front-runner in New Hampshire, the next contest in the rapid-fire series of votes that will select presidential contenders for both parties.

With 97 per cent of the Democrat vote counted, Mr. Obama had 38 per cent. Ms. Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards were locked in a near tie. Mr. Edwards had 30 per cent; Ms. Clinton just behind with 29 per cent.

Mr. Obama's campaign focused on "change." Ms. Clinton stressed "experience."

Iowans picked change.

"On this January night at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics have said we couldn't do," said a triumphant Mr. Obama. "We are one nation, we are one people and the time for change has come."

Ms. Clinton vowed to stay in the race, despite being shouldered into third place in Iowa. "It was a great night for Democrats," she insisted, referring to the huge turnout. Americans want change, she added, saying it will come when there is "a Democrat president in the White House in 2009." The message from Iowa, however, was that it may not be another Clinton.

"One thing is clear and it is that the status quo lost and change won," Mr. Edwards said.

Two Democrats decided to drop out of the race after doing poorly last night, presidential long-shot Joseph Biden and Senator Christopher Dodd, sources close to both men said. Mr. Biden placed fifth and Mr. Dodd won just 0.02 per cent of the state's caucus-goers.

Mr. Huckabee's cash-strapped campaign has little organization and almost no staff in New Hampshire and he may focus his next effort on the more familiar turf of South Carolina.

"It starts here in Iowa, but it doesn't end here; it goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. a year from now," Mr. Huckabee told a raucous victory party.

"Tonight we proved that American politics is still in the hands of ordinary folks like you," said Mr. Huckabee, adding that money - he was outspent 15 to one - wasn't enough to win in Iowa.

If Mr. Romney were to lose both in Iowa and New Hampshire, it would throw the race wide open. In addition to boosting his own fortunes, Mr. Huckabee's upset victory helped all of Mr. Romney's other rivals.

During the campaign, Mr. Huckabee sought to place himself as one of the common folk. "Americans would rather elect a president that reminds them of someone they work with rather than the guy who laid them off," he said in a not too thinly disguised jab at Mr. Romney, the rich venture capitalist with a stellar business career.

Evangelical Christians turned out in record numbers, overcoming the droves of hired political operatives in the far-more-expensive Romney machine.

With 85 per cent of the Republican vote counted, Mr. Huckabee had 34 per cent and Mr. Romney 25 per cent. Both were distantly trailed by Mr. McCain and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, each with 13 per cent.

Mr. Romney was putting on a brave face even before the disappointing results came in.

"I'd like to win them, but if I don't win, coming in second in these states is a strong statement," said Mr. Romney, referring to Iowa and New Hampshire, the small states that traditionally lead off the race to select presidential contenders.

Mr. Romney, a Mormon, vastly outspent his rivals and built an unmatched professional organization. But the folksy, guitar-playing Mr. Huckabee, who is a Baptist minister, came from behind.

He repeatedly insisted during the campaign that he wouldn't respond to the Romney campaign's mud-slinging but he also made headlines when he made and then scrapped a tough attack ad of his own. Yesterday, he was still joking about it.

Others, he said, spent millions "to tell you guys what a bum I am. I brought my wife. She can tell you that for free."

Democrats turned out in record numbers - perhaps twice as many as Republicans - drawn to an unprecedented race. Mr. Obama, the first African-American to make a serious run at the presidency, confirmed the credibility and breadth of his appeal with the result, a very strong showing in a state with very few black voters. He was outpolling his rivals 5-1 among young voters, those under 30, a group that traditionally ignores caucuses.

At a rally yesterday, Mr. Obama urged his supporters to prove pundits wrong.

"They don't think you're going to show up," he told a student rally. "Are you going to prove them wrong?" he asked as the crowd erupted into loud cheers.

By contrast, Ms. Clinton was taking the overwhelming majority of voters over 60, according to entrance polls.

Mr. Edwards perhaps more than any other candidate had staked his second presidential bid on winning or coming a close second in Iowa.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the only heavyweight candidate not to campaign in Iowa, scoffed at the suggestion he had made a mistake by ignoring the Hawkeye state. "We're not worried and we're not concerned," he said yesterday in New Hampshire.

Iowa voters braved the cold to gather in 1,781 caucuses.