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Historic change: Obama elected president

Americans hungry to take the country in a new direction swept Barack Obama into the White House on Tuesday, ending the most extraordinary presidential campaign in modern times.

It is an I-never-thought-I'd-live-to-see-it moment in American history: A black man — the son of America's heartland and of Africa — will be the 44th president of the United States.

Obama, 47, won this epic election by redrawing the conventional red and blue electoral map, competing fiercely in states that hadn't backed a Democrat for president in decades. And winning some of them.

Even Florida, where the contested election of 2000 set the nation on an entirely new course, swung to Obama.

"If there is there anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama told more than 100,000 people celebrating at Chicago's Grant Park.

"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."

Obama ran as a youthful outsider whose early opposition to the war in Iraq formed the basis of his national identity. With a broad and efficient presidential campaign, he pressed his message of sober and thoughtful yet dramatic change in foreign and economic policy.

The Illinois senator is the first African-American to win a statewide election in Florida, having performed particularly well in battleground counties along the Interstate 4 corridor and, according to exit polls, winning coveted Hispanic voters by more than 15 percentage points. President Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 points four years ago.

Five minutes after NBC News called the race for Obama, the last University of South Florida student to vote cast his ballot for America's new president — four hours after polls were scheduled to close in Hillsborough County.

Crowds of students at the Marshall Center had already begun screaming when Jeremiah Warren, 21, of Plant City finished voting. Within minutes, car horns were honking everywhere, and in parts of Tampa Bay celebrators climbed on top of cars, waving their shirts.

McCain called Obama to concede about 10 p.m., and in Arizona he hailed the "historic election" and tried to hush supporters who booed at the mention of the president-elect.

"In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance,'' McCain said. "Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."

Gov. Charlie Crist, who gave McCain a crucial last-minute endorsement in Florida's Republican primary in January, stayed away from public Republican campaign parties Tuesday and had no comment.

Losing Florida's 27 electoral votes by itself was enough to end McCain's chance of victory, but Obama also picked off several states that Bush won four years ago, including Virginia, Ohio and Iowa.

McCain, 72, a son and grandson of admirals who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 51/2 years, ran on his experience and record of bucking his own party, saying he also would bring change to Washington.

But he always had an uphill fight, given Bush's record-low approval ratings, a grim economy, and a war most Americans had concluded was a mistake.

The Arizona senator remained competitive through much of the general election. But by many accounts the meltdown of the financial sector that struck on Sept. 15 vanquished McCain's candidacy just as surely as it sank financial titans such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch.

On Tuesday in North Pinellas County, Gary Bucklew voted for McCain but said picking a candidate for president this year was tough — "a very, very difficult personal decision. … At the end of the day, (McCain) was a person of honor who had me at 'war hero,' " said Bucklew, 54, who voted at Eastlake United Methodist Church.

His verdict on Obama? "A salesman," he said.

Ultimately, the Republican once celebrated as an independent-minded maverick could not convince enough people he was the best equipped to turn the page on Bush's agenda.

Exit polls found that the top quality voters wanted in their next president was someone who could bring about needed change, followed by someone who shared their values.

Six in 10 voters nationally saw the economy as the most important issue facing the nation, according to preliminary polling. None of the four other issues listed by exit pollsters — energy, Iraq, terrorism and health care — was picked by more than one in 10 people.

Almost everyone agreed the economy's condition is either "poor" or "not good." Half of voters said they're very worried that the current economic crisis will harm their families, and another third were somewhat worried about that. About two-thirds of voters have stock market investments, such as retirement funds.

In Florida, more than eight in 10 voters said they were worried about the economy next year and nearly six in 10 voters said Obama was more in touch with people like them.

"I just think the country needs a different direction," said Hudson resident Will Skibb, 23, a cook at Ruby Tuesday and first-time voter.

"The economy is not as good as it could be," he said. "And I don't really agree with the war we're in. I think Barack Obama will do some better things for the country."

Republicans only a few years ago were talking about creating a "permanent majority," but are now left reeling. Democrats increased their majorities in the House and the Senate, though it appeared they would fall shy of gaining the 60 seats in the Senate needed to block filibusters.

It is very much a new day in American politics, underscored with the defeat of Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. For the first time since 1952, there is no Dole or Bush holding national office. And the Clintons no longer overshadow the Democrats.

Obama, the first-term senator who burst onto the national landscape with a powerful Democratic convention speech in 2004, campaigned on a promise to change the country's direction under Bush's policies and make the country respected again at home and abroad.

He created a new model for running a presidential campaign that will almost surely be copied from here out: merge your fund-raisers and volunteers. Tapping the Internet and grass roots passion, he raised an astonishing $600-million, relying heavily on small donations rather than elite fundraisers.

The money helped Obama expand the electoral map and made him viable in states long written off by Democrats. In Florida, he opened offices in places that had never seen a presidential campaign and scattered about 500 paid staffers to help direct hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

Obama's disciplined campaign focused intensely on energizing young voters and sporadic voters. In Florida, many university student waited in line for hours to vote Tuesday and more than one in 10 voters said they were voting for the first time in their lives.

The result could be seen in counties that Bush won by wide margins in 2004 — including Sarasota and Duval counties — turning into neck-and-neck contests on Tuesday.

Classie McMillen, 28, said she took the day off from her two jobs at the Comfort Inn and Dunkin' Donuts to cast her vote for Obama at a polling place in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood in Hillsborough County. McMillan, who is black, brought her 12-year-old daughter with her to witness what she called "something she can tell her own children and grandchildren about."

The election had been going nearly two years, and it was a tumultuous ride with stunning development after development:

• Obama beating the supposedly invincible machine of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Iowa.

• Clinton staging a stunning, but ultimately unsuccessful comeback.

• McCain starting as the overwhelming front-runner for the GOP nomination and then collapsing into a long shot.

• McCain tenaciously coming back to grab the nomination, thanks largely to winning Florida's Jan. 29 primary.

• McCain shocking the world by picking a virtual unknown, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his running mate.

While Palin thrilled the conservative Republican base skeptical about McCain, she undercut McCain's experience argument and turned off some swing voters.

Four in 10 voters overall said Palin was an important factor in deciding whom to vote for, and this group leaned slightly toward Obama. But nine in 10 Republicans who called Palin's selection important were voting for McCain.

Lingering uncertainty about whether American voters would ultimately elect their first African-American president proved unfounded. Nine out of 10 voters said race was not an important factor in their decision.

Just over half of white voters overall were backing McCain, a group that had favored Bush over John Kerry by 17 percentage points in 2004.

Overall, Obama drew the votes of more than half of women, two-thirds of Hispanic voters and nearly all blacks who went to the polls. Obama was winning the under-30 vote by a 2-1 ratio.

In Tampa Tuesday night, Obama supporters eagerly awaited the final results, watching on television as the red and blue electoral map turned bluer as the hours passed.

When Lydia Hudson, 42, and Loretta Mitchell, 48, saw Hills­borough turn blue, they held each other and cried. Neither of the African-American women thought they would ever see a black president in their lifetimes.

"I never thought it would happen in my children's lifetimes," said Mitchell, of Clearwater. The two women who have been campaigning for Obama for the past year say they bought their inauguration tickets in June.

Now, Hudson said, she didn't have to wait any longer. "It's over," said Hudson, of Tampa. "It's done. We actually get to start anew. … It actually makes me believe in the American dream."

Staff writers Rob Farley, Angie Drobnic Holan and Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Associated Press. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Historic change: Obama elected president 11/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 12:50pm]
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