DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Ted Cruz, the self-proclaimed outsider and tea party champion, was warmly embraced by conservative Iowa Republicans, whose historic turnout sealed his victory in the Iowa caucuses Monday.
The win in the first Republican contest injected Cruz's campaign with an adrenaline that will make him a dominant presence as the presidential race hurtles forward. The first-term Texas senator now heads to New Hampshire with clear support from a base of diehard conservatives, a position of strength for drawing in evangelical voters and others who define this election as the opportunity to make an abrupt break with President Barack Obama's policies and legacy.
Cruz greeted his supporters in triumph at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
"You want to know what scares the Washington cartel," Cruz asked. The crowd shouted back, "You!" But Cruz said: "What scares them is the old Reagan coalition is coming back together, of conservatives. We're seeing conservatives and evangelicals and Libertarians and Reagan Democrats all coming together as one and that terrifies Washington, D.C."
The vote was a clear setback for Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul who had parlayed his fame into large rallies and national poll numbers that before Monday night had established him as the Republican front-runner.
But Trump came in second, only slightly ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who achieved a credible showing by nearly besting Trump. Rubio's stronger-than-expected finish could help cement his status as the favorite of mainstream Republican voters who worry that Cruz and Trump are too caustic to win the November general election.
Trump doubled down on winning the nomination and besting either Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"We will go on to get the Republican nomination and we will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie or whatever the hell they throw up there," Trump told supporters.
The Texas senator visited all 99 of Iowa's counties — and convinced voters that he would deliver on promises to end Obamacare and use extensive aerial bombing campaigns to stop Islamic State militants in the Middle East.
Cruz backer Shane VanderHart, 43, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, said he believes Cruz will actually repeal the health insurance program introduced by Obama in 2010, a longtime but pledge by Republican candidates.
"When he says he's going to repeal it, I believe him because he's followed through on his campaign promises in the Senate," VanderHart said.
Michael Napuunoa, 25, an electrician from Des Moines, said he liked Cruz's promise to strengthen the military and fight terrorism.
"He may not be as aggressive as Trump," Napuuona said. "But I don't want a hothead. I want a man who's going to get the job done and not kill everyone in the process."
The Iowa results have already narrowed an unusually crowded Republican field, with a number of candidates struggling to achieve the turnout needed to continue. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee ended his campaign Monday night.
GOP caucus-goers were overwhelmingly motivated by their frustration with the government. Nine out of 10 Republican voters said they're angry or dissatisfied with Washington.
Among conservative caucus-goers, the entrance poll showed Cruz was the top choice. Trump fared best with moderates. Caucus-goers who said they were somewhat conservative were split between Rubio and Trump.
Monday's contest provided hard evidence that Trump could not easily turn the legion of fans drawn to his adversarial populism into voters. The scope of the billionaire's organization in Iowa was a mystery, though Trump himself had intensified his campaign schedule during the final sprint.
Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich barely registered in Iowa. The governors are banking instead on strong showings in New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary.
Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report from Washington, Scott Bauer contributed from Des Moines.