MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Mike Huckabee's surprising victory in Iowa on Thursday turned the Republican race for U.S. president upside down, but his path to the party's presidential nomination was far from certain.
Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist preacher who hails from the same town as former Democratic President Bill Clinton -- tiny Hope, Arkansas -- rode a wave of support from evangelical Christians and overcame some late campaign missteps to win Iowa.
Iowa kicked off the state-by-state battles to determine which Republican and Democratic candidates will face off in a November election to replace George W. Bush as president in January 2009.
Huckabee's campaign is on a shoestring budget and many from his party will have to wrestle with whether his victory in conservative Iowa translates into his being the most electable Republican nationwide.
The come-from-behind Huckabee victory meant the race was still wide open, but put Mitt Romney -- a multimillionaire former governor of Massachusetts who would be the first Mormon president -- in a tight spot.
Romney appeared to be poised for a second-place finish in a state where he spent millions of dollars and had a big lead only months ago, before Huckabee came out of nowhere to pull ahead of the crowded Republican field.
The Huckabee victory would appear to make New Hampshire, which next Tuesday holds the next contest on the road to the November presidential, a nearly must-win state for Romney, a former chief executive of management consulting firm Bain & Company who rose to prominence in 2002 for turning around the debt-ridden Salt Lake City Olympics.
The Romney campaign was hanging tough.
"This competitive finish here in Iowa puts us in the position of remaining competitive across the board in all of these early primary states. No other campaign can point to a similar measure of broad strength in the early primary states," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
The win also provides a jolt of momentum for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, where McCain is providing a strong challenge to Romney.
McCain's penchant for straight talk has long endeared him to New Hampshire voters. He won New Hampshire in 2000 over Bush, the ultimate victor in the nationwide vote. His cash-strapped campaign was given up for dead last summer, only to enjoy a renewal thanks to McCain's never-give-up persona.
Huckabee's win, by denying Romney the momentum of an Iowa victory, could also benefit Republican Rudy Giuliani in the states to follow.
The former New York mayor, whose support for abortion rights and gay rights never played well in Iowa, is hoping to survive until 20 states that might prove more favorable to him vote on February 5.
The fact that Romney did not win Iowa would seem to help Giuliani argue that the race is still wide open.
Huckabee laced his campaign appearances with folksy stories and jokes and played the guitar to endear himself to Iowa Republican voters. His background as a former Baptist preacher was instrumental in his support from the state's evangelical Christians.
Or, as McCain said on Fox News Channel, "I think he came across as a very likable individual."
Romney tried to chop Huckabee down to size with a series of attacks against his record as Arkansas governor and accusing him of lacking knowledge on foreign policy.
Critics had accused Huckabee of a few missteps in the final days of the Iowa race and accentuated his lack of experience in world affairs.
He had initially offered an apology for the assassination last week of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, although his campaign later said he meant to express his sympathies.
Huckabee was on the brink of responding to Romney's attacks with a television attack ad of his own, only to stop short of doing so -- while making a point of showing reporters the ad and thus ensuring networks would broadcast it for free.
McCain said Huckabee's victory was proof that "negative campaigns don't work."
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/
Editing by Howard Goller