By David Usborne
Barack Obama completed his journey from young first-term senator to the president-elect of the United States last night taking the stage before a sea of excited faces in a downtown Chicago park and declaring to them and the rest of the world that "change has come to America".
The election that began almost two years ago ended in the dwindling hours of the evening when the US networks projected Mr Obama the winner. A vanquished John McCain, his Republican foe, conceded from a hotel in Phoenix, leaving Mr Obama to stand before the huge crowd in Grant Park.
"The road ahead will be long, the climb will be steep," Mr Obama warned, mixing a promise of progress and reconciliation with warnings of the challenges ahead. "We may not get there in one year or eve in one term but America tonight I have never been more certain that we will get there," he continued, triggering chants of ‘Yes, we Can’ – the signature slogan of his campaign – from his audience.
While the results in two important states - Missouri and North Carolina – were still on a knife edge this morning, the returns from the rest of the country had given Mr Obama 349 votes in the Electoral Collage versus 162 for Mr McCain. It was a margin that by any reckoning was a landslide. In his sweep, Mr Obama captured states that have usually voted Republican, including Indiana and Virginia. He moreover prevailed in arguably the two most critical states of all in this race, Florida and Ohio.
As tears wetted a thousand cheeks in the Chicago crowd, it was clear that the significance of Mr Obama’s victory may take some while to sink in. Only 47 years old with limited experience of government, he will become the first black American to be elected to the country’s highest office.
"It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America," Mr Obama said against a curtain of American flags. "If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." His speech over, he lingered on the stage with his wife, Michelle, in a striking black dress with red splashes, and their daughters as well as his running mate Joe Biden, now the Vice President-elect.
It was a night that also saw significant shifts towards the Democrats in the US Congress, although it seemed early today that the party’s hope of gaining a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the US Senate may not have come to pass.
As the dreams and hopes of millions of Democrats – as well as African-Americans – at last danced towards reality, celebrations spontaneously erupted in cities across the country, from Times Square in New York to the beaches of Waikiki, where Mr Obama once surfed, and to the casino floors of Las Vegas.
In Atlanta, Georgia, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, a crowd some 3,000 strong massed at the tomb of Martin Luther King and held a candlelight vigil led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, a veteran campaigner for black equality, before cramming into the Ebenezer Baptist church to pray, to sing and to watch the results unfold on giant screens. Whole families clamboured up the windows of the church to see the latest election news, and people cried out and wept as Pennsylvania was called for Mr Obama.
Earlier, standing beside the tomb, which floats atop a pool of water that reflected the candle flames and the moonlight, Rev Sharpton – flanked by Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, children of the slain civil rights leader – told the crowd that the opportunity to have voted for the nation’s first black president was Martin Luther King’s "gift" to a new generation.
And America will be changed too by the passion of the vote and the turnout seen yesterday. From Ohio to California, from Illinois to Oklahoma, officials reported queues forming even before dawn as Americans seized their chance to determine the outcome of an election that was set to make history, if not by sending the first ever black American to the Oval Office, then by picking the first woman vice-president.
They came before work. They snuck out from work. Some had newspapers in hand to read the final reports from the campaign trail as they waited their turn for the booths. Some had coffee to keep them alert. Older folk brought chairs, worried that the wait might be too much. Others had music to pass the time. When they were done, some had tears in their eyes. If history was about to happen, they had been part of it.
For African Americans, the sensation of ticking the box for Mr Obama was especially intense. "I want to tell the American people that today we see God’s hand and the sun is now shining in the darkness," said Velma Pate, a poll worker in Glenwood, near Chicago. Mrs Pate is old enough to remember segregation in America – a time, she recalled, when she could not drink from the same water fountain as a white person.
Team Obama knew the voter surge was good news. The senator’s path to victory was predicated on bringing millions of first-time voters to the polls, particularly the young and members of minorities.
For America, it was yet more profound. Call it the demise of cynicism or the end of apathy. The country that
pretends to be the standard-bearer of the democracy and presumes, indeed, to export it to the other countries around the world was living up to its own standards. Uncle Sam, after years of lethargy, had caught election fever.
Both candidates did the traditional thing, casting their votes in their home cities – Mr Obama in Chicago and Mr McCain in Phoenix – at the start of the day before the glare of the cameras. In a break with tradition that reflected the desperation in the Republican camp, Mr McCain attended election-day rallies in two western battleground states, Colorado and New Mexico.
"Fight for our country! Fight for what you believe in!" he told supporters at a rally at Grand Junction, Colorado. "Fight for America. Fight for the ideals and culture of free people! Fight for our future! Fight for justice for all! Stand up, stand up and fight!"
Mr Obama dawdled for several minutes with his wife and daughters at the voting machine at a polling station in a south Chicago school gymnasium. While the senator was set to appear at a huge election night party in Chicago’s Grant Park late last night – after playing basketball in the afternoon – a quieter event was set for Mr McCain at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.
Glitches in voting seemed to be fairly limited, although reports were coming in from some precincts in the critical state of Virginia of scattered problems with voting machines. Elsewhere, polling personnel said most problems, mostly mechanical, stemmed from the sheer high volume of voters.
Financial markets seemed to be looking forward if not to Mr Obama winning then at least all suspense ending. US stocks had their biggest election day rally ever, while global credit markets showed more signs of a thaw.
Democrats have suffered cruel disappointment before, not least when George Bush snatched victory from Al Gore in 2000. Mr Obama had said the polls would narrow in the last days of the race – but they hadn’t. Even Karl Rove, the dark master of political strategy for Mr Bush, was predicting a convincing win for Mr Obama.
An Obama win is one thing. If, by this morning, it is clear he has polled more than 50 per cent, however, he will be the first Democrat to break that threshold since Jimmy Carter. His mandate to govern will be solid, helped also by the increased majorities expected for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Party officials were looking particularly for gains in the US Senate, perhaps taking the party to the 60-seat mark that would protect it from Republican filibusters.
Among those expressing confidence was the former president, Bill Clinton, who voted early in Chappaqua, New York, with his wife, Hillary. But he had a warning: "Our party tomorrow will wake up with an enormous opportunity but an enormous responsibility."
The managing of expectations will be the first order of business today. Mr Bush remains the land’s chief executive until the inauguration of his successor on 20 January. Thereafter, the new president will inherit a country beset by economic difficulties and mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is, in part, because of those multiple challenges that so many voters felt compelled to take part in the election. But the turnout was, of course, driven by an election strewn with drama and juiced by an unusually compelling cast of candidates. It was the first election since 1928 when neither an incumbent president nor vice-president had sought the nomination of their parties.
Key dates between Election Day and Inauguration Day
Key dates in formalizing the presidential election results:
9 December: Deadline for states to resolve issues regarding election recounts, controversies or contests.
15 December: Electors meet in their states to cast votes for president and vice president. They are not required by federal law to follow the will of the popular vote in their state.
24 December: Deadline for designated officials, such as the president of the Senate and others, to have the electoral votes in hand, though states do not face any legal penalty if they don't comply.
6 January: Congress meets to count the electoral votes. The president and vice president must win a majority of electoral votes, or 270, to be elected. If there is no majority, the House selects the president, and the Senate selects the vice president.
20 January: The president-elect is sworn into office.
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