INTERSTATE 80, Iowa, 3:30 p.m. – The cameras left today. So, too, did the candidates, in big airplanes that flew north to New Hampshire. Iowans settled back to their lives. In a Country Kitchen off I-80 just west of Des Moines, the talk was once again town gossip – not the candidate haggling heard in a Le Mars Subway just six days ago.

When all settled in the most heated Iowan primary contest in fifty years, two men — Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — took home the blue ribbon.

But they were not the only winners.

Iowa witnessed massive enfranchisement: the participation of first-time caucusgoers who transcended traditional age and racial demographic groups. Youth participation in the Democratic caucus rose five percent, according to CNN entrance polling taken Thursday night across the state.

And this morning, we can also tentatively call a victory for the state of Iowa. After months of criticism, debate, and states leap-frogging one another to secure an early primary date, the Hawkeye state proved itself once again, picking an underfunded, little-known candidate to lead the Republican field who only four months ago was polling in single digits.

Mike Huckabee’s victory here is, therefore, perhaps a validation of the retail politics that made the Iowa caucus such a weather vane for national political sentiment. Up against Mitt Romney, who – to his credit – set up the best Iowa organization of any Republican contender, Huckabee seemed outmatched; his was a campaign without access to the self-contributed millions that made Romney so viable.

Working the doors and straw polls, he put in the time and played the themes that won over Iowan social conservatives and voters looking for someone other than the sometimes-inconsistent Romney. The smooth, personable governor will face an uphill climb now in New Hampshire, against not only a regrouped Romney, but also an entrenched John McCain making his last stand in the Granite State after his fourth-place finish last night.

For Hillary Clinton, the race is far from over. While her chief rival validated his strategy of banking on new caucus-goers, this morning’s Des Moines Register reminds us that Obama, although surely riding high this morning, needs to be cognizant of the fact that more than three out of five Democrats in Iowa preferred another candidate.

Clinton, meanwhile, maintains her national lead, and in the larger states where Obama’s grassroots efforts may find themselves outmatched by the sheer scale of necessary efforts, the battle of the airwaves could just fall into Clinton’s court.

Regardless, last night meant a boost of O-mentum nationwide.

But will Iowa matter on Jan. 20, 2009?

Traditionally categorized as the least reliable of all voting-age demographics, the 17-29 age group formed 22 percent of Democratic caucusgoers-last night. That figure, combined with estimates that 25 to 30 percent of all caucusgoers were heading to the caucus for the first time last night, means politicians relying on Iowan youth can safely brush away media and pundit skepticism of the efficacy of such a strategy.

That said, this phenomenon still has yet to play out nationally. What makes Iowa special is the ability of a candidate to stay and live in the state for a year, camping out and shaking nearly every hand. That kind of personal attention vanishes when you hit Super Tuesday, and it just might be that old norms of youth apathy return when voters head to the polls in Sacramento, Miami Beach and Newark on Feb. 5.

Even after national political strategists wrote off the caucuses over the summer as bigger states moved into the early primary field, Iowans said, “We’ll see.” Even as big-name candidates – national front-runners – told the nation that Iowa did not matter this year because Michigan, New York, and South Carolina were so close behind, Iowans said, “We’ll see.” And when a concerned national public started venting its anger that Iowa – white, conservative Iowa – would get the first crack at winnowing down a field that contained for the first time in history a serious black, female, and Mormon candidate, Iowans said, “We’ll see.”

As January 3rd approached, it became clear that, rather than diminish the importance of the caucus, the top-heavy primary schedule had only added to their significances. National and international media flooded the state, sending back reports of an Iowa electorate devoted to the cause of presidential selection, which only further fueled the average Iowans’ belief in his or her nearly divine mission to go to the caucus on Thursday. Skeptics looked back. Giuliani and McCain made half-hearted efforts at the state before finally writing it off. And yesterday, it launched two men from the Hawkeye State with a strong tailwind of support from the Midwest, headed to the next round of the pitched primary battle – this time in New England.

But Iowa is not out of the weeds yet. Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton still threaten the state’s credibility with 50-state strategies that have the potential to succeed, even if early primary losses damage their campaigns. If Election Day 2008 puts an Iowa loser in the White House, the choir of caucus critics who sung their first verse last summer may just take up the coda. That could mean regional primaries, or any number of schemes that would remove the state from the electoral throne it has held since 1976 when it offered up an unknown Georgian to the nation – Jimmy Carter.

For now, though, the nation has already forgotten the names of towns along Interstates 80 and 35 that graced the datelines of every national paper for weeks. New Hampshire takes on the mantle of the must-win, which means a fresh avalanche of argumentation, analysis and aftermath. And Yale will be right there with it, embedded in the campaigns as staffers, volunteers, or – yes – journalists. So stay tuned, because the news coming out of Manchester, New Hampshire is getting grittier by the moment.

This is Zack Abrahamson, signing off from Iowa. You’ve been good to me.

-Zack Abrahamson