DES MOINES, IOWA (AFP/BLOOMBERG) - After the battle in Iowa, United States presidential hopefuls trained their sights on New Hampshire and beyond Tuesday (Feb 2), with conservative senator Ted Cruz keen to build on his dramatic Iowa victory over billionaire Donald Trump, and Democrat Hillary Clinton reminded that she is not politically invincible.
Republicans in the rural state backed the ultraconservative Mr Cruz for their party's nomination, leaving a humbled Mr Trump in second place just ahead of senator Marco Rubio, according to nearly complete results given by the party.
Mrs Clinton, for her part, was battled into a virtual tie with rival Bernie Sanders, as Iowans held the inaugural vote of the 2016 White House race.
Her campaign declared victory as under the party's arcane state delegate maths, Mrs Clinton won about four more state delegate equivalents than Mr Sanders, with one precinct yet to report totals. That precinct is only worth about two-and-a-quarter delegates total, less than the margin between the two leaders.
Mrs Clinton's vow to never again lose the Iowa caucuses, as she did in spectacular fashion in 2008, paid off. And for her, that's probably going to be enough.
Mr Sanders' strong showing almost certainly denies Mrs Clinton a glide path to the nomination and prolongs the contest deeper into the calendar than she hoped, by likely giving her opponent an infusion of cash and momentum.
It's also sure to resurrect the questions that have long surrounded Mrs Clinton and nagged at Democrats, about why she can't close the deal, why many voters remain cool to her and whether she truly is capable of knocking out a Republican in the fall.
During her speech to supporters in Iowa, Mrs Clinton stopped short of declaring victory. "So, as I stand here tonight - breathing a big sigh of relief - thank you Iowa - I want you to know I will keep doing what I have done my entire life, I will keep fighting for you," she said.
"We believe strongly that we won tonight," Mrs Clinton's national press secretary Brian Fallon told reporters aboard a press plane preparing to depart Des Moines for New Hampshire.
Mrs Clinton's narrowest of wins marked a rough night for the establishment on both sides of the political aisle.
Mr Sanders, like Mr Cruz and Mr Trump, ran a campaign appealing to the populist anti-establishment strains in the electorate.
Mr Cruz has made a career out of tormenting his party's leaders. But they cheered his come-from-behind victory in Iowa on Monday all the same for one simple reason: he dealt a early blow to their common enemy, Mr Trump.
Mr Trump, who has led most public opinion polls for the past six months, was on the verge of victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, something no non-incumbent Republican had ever done.
That outcome could have given Mr Trump's unlikely candidacy near unstoppable momentum in the race to the nomination. Now, Mr Trump -who has promised supporters so many victories that they "may get bored with winning"- heads into New Hampshire without securing the win that he himself said would allow him to "run the table".
And not only does he face a strong challenger in Mr Cruz, but also a revitalised Mr Rubio, who raked in 23 per cent of the vote.
"This will change the polls in New Hampshire by Friday," said Mr Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and member of former president George H.W. Bush's administration.
The unfolding struggle within the Republican nomination contest - between the men and women who have controlled the levers of power for decades, and the voters craving change - is the latest episode of political unrest gripping democracies around the world.
"There is something happening across the globe right now that is making voters uneasy, and we're not immune to that," said Mr Mitch Stewart, one of the architects of President Barack Obama's two presidential victories. "It's largely driven by the economy," Mr Stewart said. "Whenever you go through an economic upheaval, you often find voters searching for answers, and sometimes they're searching for answers in places they normally wouldn't."
"Cruz's victory gives them more hope," Mr Pete Wehner, a veteran of the past three Republican administrations, said about the party's establishment. "This blocks Trump from running the table. There's no concern about Cruz running the table."
Mr Rubio of Florida exceeded expectations with a strong third-place finish that will give him a chance to make a case that establishment Republicans, uneasy at the prospect of Mr Trump or Mr Cruz as the party nominee, should coalesce around him.
Though only about 1 per cent of the delegates needed to win either party's presidential nomination are awarded in the caucuses, the results render an initial verdict of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Turnout was high, which both Mr Cruz and Mr Sanders were counting on. Long lines were reported for both Democratic and Republican caucuses at a church in West Des Moines and there were not enough chairs at a Republican caucus site in Van Meter, in Dallas County.
But the big crowds drawn to Trump rallies by the candidate's unconventional campaign style didn't translate into enough votes for a victory.
Mr Cruz relied on tried-and-true organising tactics and appeals to evangelical voters, who make up a substantial part of the Republican base in Iowa.
For many long-shot candidates, Iowa has spelled the end of the road.
Republican Mick Huckabee announced he was suspending his campaign, as did Democrat Martin O'Malley.
NEW HAMPSHIRE BECKONS
And just like that, many of the candidates pulled up stakes and whisked away on their jets to New Hampshire, where they will hit the ground running on Tuesday (Feb 2).
The race could be reset yet again in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary on Feb 9.
Mr Trump and Mr Sanders both have held substantial leads in polls there.
Mrs Clinton may be seeking to merely tread water for this next week, until the race shifts to South Carolina and Nevada, where she has commanding leads in the polls.
Mr Sanders will be returning to what can safely be described as his home turf, and the potential to land a hammer blow against the former secretary of state and her dreams to be America's first female commander in chief.
After that, there are several key votes in southern states, where Mr David Redlawsk, a professor at Rutgers University who was in Iowa for the caucuses, said Mr Sanders may have a tough time appealing to the region's Democrats, who are traditional more conservative.
Mr Cruz will be aiming to capitalise on his sudden momentum. His victory will bring his campaign new attention and more money, but he is not seen as a major threat in New Hampshire, where establishment candidates usually have more appeal than in Iowa.
Mr Trump, who endured a tough night for a brash real estate magnate whose very brand is built on the concept of winning, will need to prove whether he can win in New Hampshire, where he holds a clear lead in the polls.
But his modest tally in Iowa - just above 24 per cent - in the first vote since months of unprecedented wall-to-wall media coverage of Mr Trump, raises serious questions about whether showmanship can be a winning presidential strategy.
A second hiccup, in New Hampshire, would spell political disaster for the billionaire.
"He's the big loser tonight," Mr Redlawsk told AFP.
"Iowa didn't quite say you're fired, but it was certainly not ready to hire him."
Mr Trump sought to brush off his loss, saying he was "honoured" to finish as he did after being given no chance to win Iowa at the outset.
"I was told by everybody, 'Do not go to Iowa. You couldn't finish in the top ten'," he told supporters. "I said 'I have to do it'."
Mr Rubio, whose star has risen in recent weeks, tried to capitalise on a strong showing and his status as the top mainstream Republican. He earned more than 23 per cent, according to the nearly complete party results, essentially confirming that the Republican battle is no longer just a two-man race.
"Tonight we have taken the first step but an important step towards winning this election," said Mr Rubio, clearly over the moon about finishing just one point behind The Donald.
Mr Rubio was the target of frequent attacks in Iowa, and now will be an even bigger target in New Hampshire, where other rivals Mr Jeb Bush, Mr John Kasich and Mr Chris Christie will all await him.
Read more stories on the US election here