John Kerry (search) was triumphant in his surprise first-place finish in Iowa, where he beat former front-runner Howard Dean (search) by a margin of two to one.

"Iowa, I love you. I love you. Last night the New England Patriots won. Tonight this New Englander won and you’ve set me on the way to the Super Bowl," Kerry told cheering supporters in Des Moines on Monday night.

Just weeks ago, the Kerry campaign had been floundering, running a distant third in Iowa and far behind Dean in New Hampshire. His strong showing at the caucuses, usually good for several points elsewhere, is likely to change all that.

Borrowing a line from Bill Clinton after the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Kerry celebrated his late surge.

"Thank you, Iowa, for making me Comeback Kerry," he said. "I make you this pledge: I have only just begun to fight. In the months and years ahead, I pledge that I will be fighting for you and all Americans across the country whose voices are being stolen by powerful special interests."

Dean had been appealing to the angry Democrats, but when it came to caucus time, voters considered electability over President Bush and favored Kerry and second-place finisher John Edwards (search), experts said.

"The people of Iowa got very serious about picking a president. Democrats want someone who could take on President Bush, particularly on national security," said Tad Devine, a Kerry campaign strategist.

Despite his disappointing third-place finish, Dean barreled out to address his energized supporters with his sleeves rolled up, screaming his fire-breathing message.

"If you had told us one year ago that we were going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that. We will not give up. We will not give up in New Hampshire. We will not give up in South Carolina, in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan. We will not quit now or ever. We will win our country back for ordinary Americans."

Dean entered the political year a clear front-runner, but lost his lead in Iowa and saw it shrink in New Hampshire after a rough two weeks. Stung by criticism of his record on race relations, Medicare and trade, Dean said a week ago he was tired of being the party's "pin cushion."

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi accused Kerry and Edwards of stealing Dean's message, but also conceded that part of the problem was that Dean got caught up in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) of Missouri. Trippi acknowledged that the third-place finish is a huge bump in the road, but insisted Dean will bounce back.

Dean said he was uncertain whether to change his tactics in New Hampshire, but he's happy to be on his way with a huge base of support and a lot of money. 

Two weeks ago, Dean shared front-runner status in Iowa with Gephardt, but Gephardt -- who won the 1988 caucuses -- finished a distant fourth on Monday, ending his bid for the 2004 nomination.

"This didn’t come out the way we wanted, but I've been through tougher fights in my life. When I watched my two-year-old son fight terminal cancer and win, it puts everything in perspective. Life will go on," he told supporters before flying home to St. Louis. "My campaign to fight for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end. We will reclaim the White House in 2004 because we have to."

In another surprise, Edwards finished in a healthy second place. Pumping his fist and wearing a smile from ear-to-ear, the North Carolina senator addressed joyful supporters.

"I came here a year ago with a belief that we could change this country. The people of Iowa tonight confirmed that they believe in a positive uplifting vision to change America. And not only that, tonight we started a movement to change this country that will sweep across America,' he said.

The entrance poll showed Edwards and Kerry reaping the benefits of Gephardt's poorer-than-expected showing. Of the people who came to the caucuses backing the Missouri lawmaker -- about 16 percent of the total -- 24 percent named Kerry as their second choice and 24 percent named Edwards.

Kerry and Edwards had solid organizations, but nothing to match Dean or Gephardt. Their strategy was to have momentum override the disadvantage.

Expectations were lower for the two senators, thus their solid showing is expected to give them momentum for the New Hampshire primary and the seven-state follow-up Feb. 3.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats turn their attention to an unprecedented rush of primaries starting Feb. 3 with South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, Delaware and North Dakota. Democratic leaders designed the front-loaded calendar in hopes of having a presumptive nominee by mid-March.

Fox News' Molly Hennenberg, Major Garrett and Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.