Barack Obama, the young Senator from Illinois, achieved a historic win in the American presidential election last night, with victories for the Democrat over his Republican rival John McCain in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
With 40 Electoral College votes to be finalised, Mr Obama’s lead was 338 votes to Mr McCain’s 159 - way beyond the winning post of 270.
The losses blocked any remaining path to victory for Mr McCain while opening the doors to the Oval Office for Mr Obama, who for 20 months has campaigned on a message of hope in a bid to become the first African-American elected to the highest office in the land.
In his victory speech, addressing a massive crowd in Grant Park, Chicago, he said : "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."
Clear to most observers, however, were the record turnout numbers. From Ohio to California, from Illinois to Oklahoma, electoral 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.
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