DES MOINES, Iowa – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were locked in an extremely tight duel in Iowa’s leadoff presidential caucuses Monday as the two rivals offered Americans a stark choice between political pragmatism and revolution.
Deep into the vote count, Clinton appeared before voters to declare she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.” But she refrained from claiming victory and declared herself ready to press forward in “a real contest of ideas.”
Sanders, for his part, said the outcome looked like “a virtual tie.” And he held out the tight margin as a strong message from Iowans that “it is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.”
Even a narrow victory for Clinton over an avowed socialist could complicate her quest for the nomination. But Clinton has deep ties throughout the party’s establishment and a strong following among a more diverse electorate that will play a larger role in primary contests beyond New Hampshire, where Sanders is favored.
Clinton, who entered the race as the heavily favored front-runner, was hoping to banish the possibility of dual losses in Iowa and in New Hampshire. Two straight defeats could set off alarms within the party and throw into question her ability to defeat a Republican.
Sanders, for his part, was hoping to replicate President Barack Obama’s pathway to the presidency by using a victory in Iowa to catapult his passion and ideals of “democratic socialism” deep into the primaries. He raised $20 million during January and hoped to turn an Iowa win into a fundraising bonanza.
Clinton, in her speech, offered herself to supporters as “progressive who gets things done,” one in a long line of reformers who challenge the status quo.
Those remarks drew jeers and boos when they aired inside Sanders’ caucus night party.
Sanders, in his turn at the microphone, offered himself as the true reformer, saying he was ready to press a “radical idea” – an economy that for works for working families, not the “billionaire class.”
Portia Boulger, a 63-year-old Sanders supporter from Chillicothe, Ohio, declared a razor-thin outcome as good as a victory for Sanders.
“The political revolution is here and it’s started in Iowa,” she declared. “Win, lose or draw we have won.”
Caucus-goers were choosing between Clinton’s pledge to use her wealth of experience in government to bring about steady progress on democratic ideals and Sanders’ call for radical change in a system rigged against ordinary Americans.
“Hillary goes out and works with what we have to work with. She works across the aisle and gets things accomplished,” said 54-year-old John Grause, a precinct captain for Clinton in Nevada, Iowa.
“It’s going to be Bernie. Hillary is history. He hasn’t been bought,” countered 55-year-old Su Podraza-Nagle, 55, who was caucusing for Sanders in the same town.
In a campaign in which Clinton has closely aligned herself with Obama, more than half of Democratic caucus-goers said they were looking for a candidate who would continue the president’s policies, according to preliminary entrance polls of those beginning to arrive at caucus locations.
Sanders’ appeal with young voters was evident: More than 8 in 10 caucus-goers under 30 came to support him, as did nearly 6 in 10 of those between ages 30 and 44. Clinton got the support of 6 in 10 caucus-goers between ages 45 and 64, and 7 in 10 of those 65 and over.
Caucus-goers were about evenly split between health care and the economy as the top issues facing the nation. About a quarter said the top issue was income inequality, Sanders’ signature issue.
About 4 in 10 said they were first-time caucus attendees, about the same proportion who said so in 2008, when Obama’s support among newcomers was critical.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, unable to turn it into a three-way race, ended his quest for the nomination.
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