In Precinct 311, an upscale neighborhood in the Des Moines suburbs, the results reflected the statewide decision. Kerry had 76 Democrats caucusing for him, with 61 for Edwards and 27 for Dean.

Deb Vranesh, a West Des Moines pharmacist, who initially joined a group of uncommitted voters, wound up switching to Kerry.

"I want to go with a candidate who can beat Bush," she said. "But I also liked Edwards, because of the freshness and he's new, a little different from the rest. He hasn't been negative like the others."

This year's Iowa campaign generated an unusually high degree of excitement, because of predictions that the contest would be the closest ever. But in the end, it wasn't. The 1988 edition, in which 9 percentage points separated the top three finishers, was.

Turnout for the caucuses was expected to top 100,000, according to the state's top election official. The previous record for a Democratic caucus, 126,000, was set in 1988, when seven candidates were running for the nomination.

Weather was not a major factor. Temperatures were in the mid-teens as voters gathered at 1,993 sites for the caucuses, public meetings that generally last from one to three hours.

Republicans also held caucuses last night. Bush is running unopposed for his party's nomination.

Only 45 of the more than 2,100 national Democratic convention delegates needed to win the right to oppose Bush this fall were at stake in the caucuses. But Iowa has exercised outsized influence in presidential campaigns for decades, as a result of its place at the head of the primary calendar.

Jimmy Carter's surprise victory in 1976 put the obscure ex-governor of Georgia on his way to the White House. No candidate has ever finished lower than third in a contested Iowa campaign and still won the nomination.

Iowans don't always pick the eventual nominee. But they usually shape the race, boosting winners and hurting candidates whose performance falls short of expectations.

The Iowa "bounce" counts most in New Hampshire, which holds its primary a week from today. In 1984, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart rode an unexpected second-place caucus finish -- more than 30 points behind former Vice President Walter F. Mondale -- to an upset victory in New Hampshire.