DES MOINES — Hillary Clinton failed Monday night to land the knockout blow she was looking for against Bernie Sanders in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
With all but a few precincts reporting, the race was simply too close to call, with the two candidates locked in a dead heat.
Regardless of which candidate edges the other out in the final tally, the returns represent a boost for the Sanders campaign as the race for the Democratic nomination moves to New Hampshire next week.
Sanders supporters were dancing in celebration as the independent senator from Vermont took the stage and held up his "virtual tie" with Clinton as a victory, given where he started in the race.
"The people of Iowa have sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment and, by the way, to the media establishment," Sanders said. "And that is: Given the enormous crises facing our country, it is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics."
Sanders noted how far his campaign has come since he got into the race and was dismissed by many as simply not a legitimate candidate.
The 74-year-old self-described "democratic socialist" certainly did not appear at first like a significant threat to political heavyweight Clinton, who boasted a resume that included the titles first lady, senator and secretary of state.
Clinton, 68, has long been seen as the inevitable nominee. But the Hawkeye State just placed a big question mark next to that front-runner status.
For their part, the Clinton camp was suggesting that she was still likely to finish on top in Iowa, albeit with a razor-thin margin.
Clinton took the stage with husband Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, before an enthusiastic crowd.
"As I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief — thank you Iowa," Clinton said as supporters cheered and applauded. "I want you to know I will keep doing what I have done my entire life. I will keep standing up for you. I will keep fighting for you. I will always work to achieve the America that I believe in where the promise of that dream that we hold out to our children and our grandchildren never fades but inspires generations to come."
Clinton declared herself a "progressive who gets things done for people" and said she's looking forward to a debate with Sanders about the best way forward for the party and the country.
"I know that we may have differences of opinion about how best to achieve our goals," Clinton said. "But I believe we have a very clear idea that the Democratic Party and this campaign stand for what is best in America, and we have to be united when it's all said and done."
By no means is the tight finish a fatal blow to Clinton's campaign. After New Hampshire, the race will turn to states that are much more favorable to her than to Sanders. But her path got much more difficult.
Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University, said Sanders will be able to carry the fight for a long time, gathering delegates across the country.
One thing is clear: The Democratic contest is now officially a two-candidate race.
Another Democratic candidate, Martin O'Malley, is suspending his campaign. Iowa Democrats have rules that candidates with less than a certain amount of support — usually about 15 percent — are considered not viable and their supporters are forced to move to other candidates or simply sit out the caucus.
O'Malley failed to reach that threshold in many areas. The former Maryland governor campaigned on the idea that he stood the best chance of working across the aisle and getting things done, but never gained traction.
Sanders, however, unexpectedly caught fire, drawing crowds that included enthusiastic college kids going to caucus for the first time and dedicated older voters inspired by his campaign.
He is pitching an unapologetically liberal agenda — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, going after Wall Street abuses and moving the country to a single-payer health care system.
"What Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution," Sanders said.
Clinton has cast herself as the best person to build on President Barack Obama's legacy and touted her experience.
A couple of those at the Clinton party, Jenny Gustafson and Amy Ehlers of West Des Moines, were pressed up close to the stage in a crush of people.
Gustafson said there was "Democratic love'' at her caucus site.
"It didn't matter if you were Bernie or Hillary, we are going to beat whoever is the Republican candidate,'' she said. "The room was full of love. We were all united against the Republicans.''
"As I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief — thank you, Iowa. I want you to know I will keep doing what I have done my entire life. I will keep standing up for you. I will keep fighting for you." — Hillary Clinton
"The people of Iowa have sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment and by the way to the media establishment." — Bernie Sanders