Sen. John Kerry (search) capitalized Monday night on a late surge in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, leaping to the top of the heap in the first Democratic presidential test of 2004.

Kerry, who led the pack in public opinion polls in the week before the caucuses, won with 38 percent of those attending the caucuses. Sen. John Edwards (search) came in second with 32 percent while one-time front-runner Howard Dean (search) took a distant third with 18.

"Iowa, I love you. Last night, the New England Patriots won. Tonight, this New Englander won and you sent me on the way to the Super Bowl. Thank you very much," Kerry told a ballroom packed with cheering supporters.

Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) came in fourth place with 11 percent. Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses when he ran for president in 1988, but his poor showing Monday was well below expectations and did not enable him to reach the 15 percent threshold needed to qualify for Iowa delegates.

Gephardt had planned to fly to New Hampshire on Monday night, but instead went home to St. Louis. The Missouri representative, who resigned from Congress in order to run for president, announced that he was going to fold his campaign tent and end his presidential ambitions.

"This didn't come out the way we wanted, but I have been through tougher fights in my life," Gephardt said. "My campaign may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end. We will reclaim the White House in 2004 because we have to."

• Photo Essay: Iowa Caucuses

At his victory speech, Kerry complimented Gephardt on being a solid lawmaker and called him a "man of commitment, a man of principle, and he has served his country and all of us with great distinction."

The short reflection on Gephardt didn't slow down Kerry, however, whose strong support became evident as soon as media entrance polls were released shortly after caucusing began.

The numbers showed that Dean did not get the backing on the issues and constituencies thought to be central to his message. In polling taken as Democratic voters entered the caucuses, 21 percent of first-time caucus-goers expressed an initial preference for Dean, compared with 29 percent for Kerry and 24 percent for Edwards. Dean was thought to be strongest among younger caucus-goers, but the entrance polls suggest he did not win this group.

Caucus-goers were also asked which qualities mattered most in deciding their candidate. Of three top issues, "takes tough stands on the issues," "can beat Bush" and "has the right experience," Kerry came out on top. In the fourth measure — "cares about people like me" —Edwards topped the pack with 41 percent.

The survey of 1,665 people at 50 randomly selected Democratic caucus sites was conducted for the Associated Press and the five television networks — Fox News, CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC. Results were subject to a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The Kerry campaign said the Massachusetts senator's success was due in part to his ability to draw considerable anti-war support from Dean, who had campaigned against the war in Iraq and said that he would give authority to NATO to handle the security and reconstruction of the nation.

The entrance poll showed that 75 percent of caucus-goers opposed the war in Iraq, but among those who disapproved of going to war, Kerry won 34 percent of the vote compared with Dean's 24 percent.

Kerry voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to go to war, though he later revised his position, saying that he believed he was giving the president the authority to get support for the use of force. He has criticized Bush's coalition-building and diplomatic efforts and said he would seek to speed up the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis.

At Dean's Iowa headquarters, campaign manager Joe Trippi told reporters that the attacks by other candidates, especially Gephardt, took their toll. Trippi accused the other candidates of taking Dean's let's-be-positive, change-for-America message for themselves, and insisted that it was Dean's message and one the former Vermont governor would continue to use.

"That's just politics 101," Trippi said of the tactics by the other campaigns. "It's our message."

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, said he believed Dean's drop was the result of a series of missteps.

"I think the worst comment was the Saddam Hussein comment," Rendell told Fox News, explaining that Dean erred when he said the United States was not safer as a result of the capture of the fallen Iraqi leader.

Dean said that had his campaign been told a year ago that Dean would end up third in Iowa, it would have been begging for the position. But Dean also said his campaign would go from Iowa all the way to the White House.

"We have just begun to fight, and we're going to fight and fight and fight," Dean said.

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In another part of Des Moines, Edwards said he felt "terrific" after his come-from-behind showing and staffers said he was pleased and gratified with the results. Edwards said his strong showing was a result of the North Carolina senator's positive campaigning.

"The people of Iowa tonight confirmed that they believe in a positive, uplifting vision that could change America," he said, adding that his campaign was now going to sweep the nation.

Edwards said he would tear down the two-tiered system in America — two tax systems, two health care systems, two education systems and two economies — that separate the haves and have-nots.

Among the other candidates, Dennis Kucinich (search) won 1 percent of the vote. Al Sharpton, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark did not register any numbers on the board, though Lieberman and Clark deliberately declined to campaign in Iowa.

Iowa Just a First Step

Two weeks ago, polling had Edwards far behind then-front-runner Dean as well as Kerry and Gephardt. In pre-caucus polls from the campaign's final days, Kerry, Edwards, Dean and Gephardt were running so close, that the candidates were statistically tied. It was the closest Iowa contest since 1988.

The Iowa caucuses are the first true indication of who might win the nomination to run against President Bush in the general election in November.

The three top-placing candidates will divvy up the state's 45 delegates, which would help get the total 2,162 needed to win the nomination. Iowa also has another 11 super delegates. The delegates are not yet chosen and most go through a series of conventions within the state. But any change in the proportional division of delegates would be a big surprise as well as a departure from past practice.

As the field heads to New Hampshire for the Jan. 27 primary, the contest becomes more competitive. Clark had been pulling to a close second against Dean in New Hampshire, with Kerry not far behind. But a strong showing in Iowa — or worse-than-expected showing — can drastically alter candidates' fates in New Hampshire.

An American Research Group New Hampshire tracking poll taken Jan. 16-18 shows that Dean has 28 percent of the vote in the Granite State, Clark has 20 percent, Kerry has 19 percent and Edwards has 8 percent. Lieberman has 3 percent and 15 percent were undecided in the poll that surveyed 617 voters, 432 Democrats and 185 undeclared. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Pollster Dick Bennett said Kerry's support is more "strong and solid" than the support for Clark, who is barely ahead of him. Bennett attributed the slippery support to some of Clark's missteps and the fact that Kerry is better known.

Dean, whose support has slipped in New Hampshire after a tumultuous two weeks in which he was stung by criticism of his record on race relations, Medicare and trade, said a week ago he was tired of being the party's "pin cushion," and suddenly looked weak to voters drawn to his blustery image.

The 'Super Bowl' of All Races

Officials had predicted the caucuses to turn on very heavy turnout, and Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen said that early estimates had turnout very high.

Attendance topped 110,000 with about 90 percent of the state's 1,997 precincts reporting.  Party officials said that when larger precincts completed reporting, turnout would probably have reached 120,000.

Political ads seemed to squeeze out entertainment shows on TV. Four pricey get-out-the-vote operations sent thousands of volunteers and professional organizers to knock on doors, mail fliers, poll voters and train precinct captains in the art of caucus politics.

Fox News' Chris Wallace, Ellen Uchimiya, Sharon Kehnemui and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.