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Nov. 5, 2008, 9:46 a.m. EST

Obama sweeps to victory on mantle of change

Democrat completes historic journey to become first black president

By Russ Britt and Robert Schroeder, MarketWatch

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- Promising change in a climate of unprecedented voter discontent, Sen. Barack Obama rode massive voter turnout to a sweeping victory in Tuesday's presidential contest over Sen. John McCain, becoming the first African-American elected as the nation's chief executive.

Obama was projected to easily win California, which put him over the 270 electoral-vote threshold needed to secure the presidency, and was on his way to handily defeating McCain by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

At last check, Obama led by 338 to 163 electoral votes. Some news outlets also called Indiana for Obama, adding 11 electoral votes, while others held off. North Carolina and Missouri remained too close to call.

With most precincts reporting nationwide, Obama won 52% of the popular vote to 47% for McCain. CNN put total votes for Obama so far at 62,450,831 to 55,393,194 for McCain.

With the victory, Obama will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 as the nation's 44th president and its first of African descent.

"If there is 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 a crowd of more than 200,000 in his victory speech at Chicago's Grant Park.

McCain noted Obama's achievement in being elected the nation's first black president in a concession speech in Phoenix, Ariz.

"His achievement alone commands my respect of his ability and perseverance," McCain said of Obama. "Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth."

Obama's victory seemed assured earlier in the night when he secured the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, then later Florida, virtually assuring before polls closed on the West Coast that there was no way McCain, a Republican from Arizona, could capture enough electoral votes to beat Obama.

The states that went into the Obama column included a number of traditionally Democratic territories, but by capturing Virginia, he won the state that last went to a Democrat in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson secured a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, another Arizona senator.

Republican backlash

The Democrat from Illinois had led an anti-Republican movement generated by growing frustration with the tenure of President George W. Bush, as Obama's party was expected to win even stronger majorities in both the House and Senate.

Democrats appeared to fall short of gaining the nine seats needed for a filibuster-resistant majority of 60 in the Senate.

Democrats held all of their seats and picked up at least five GOP seats. That gives them an effective majority of 56, including two independents. The battles over three Republican-held seats remained too close to call. See full story.

The Associated Press called the Minnesota race for incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who beat his Democratic challenger, comedian Al Franken, by less than 1% of the vote. The margin, however, is within a threshold set by state law that would trigger an automatic recount, the AP noted.

In the minds of voters, Obama successfully connected McCain to Bush, who has sunk to new lows in job-performance surveys with an economy crumbling around him and an unpopular war in Iraq weighing on voters' minds. Bush is likely to set a new record for the longest streak with a sub-40% approval rating by the time he leaves office.

Obama acknowledged to supporters in Chicago that getting the nation on the road back to recovery might not be simple.

"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there," Obama said. "There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."

Obama completed a remarkable journey that started 21 months ago when he first declared himself a candidate for president. Along the way, he thwarted the candidacy of former First Lady Hillary Clinton, now a Democratic senator from New York, and a number of other challengers, including the man who would become his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.

Clinton in many ways was his most formidable challenger, but one of his secrets in defeating Clinton was keying in on states that picked delegates via the caucus process. Clinton largely ignored those states and paid the price for it. The most notorious example came when Clinton won the popular vote in a two-tiered election process in Texas, but Obama won a subsequent caucus, and ended up with more delegates from the state.

More than $600 million

Another key was Obama's unprecedented fundraising effort, garnering more than $600 million through September, which helped him to outlast both Clinton and McCain. Obama did it largely through small donors gathered via the Internet and his supply of contributors seemed to be never-ending.

He also managed to distance himself from Clinton by saying he opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, while Clinton voted for initial funding of the costly conflict. He then used that against McCain, who was less conciliatory that Clinton and maintained the U.S. was right to remain involved in the fight there, despite its $10-billion-a-month price tag.

Obama staked out to a lead over McCain once Clinton dropped out in early June and held on to it until his opponent took the unexpected step of naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the second woman ever named to a national ticket. Palin was named the day after Obama delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Palin excited the conservative Republican base and helped McCain overcome his initial disadvantage in polls, but that bounce quickly dissipated as questions about her qualifications arose.

Economic troubles

Obama's advantage was solidified when a global credit crunch caused a number of Wall Street brokerages to collapse or seek shelter in the arms of healthier rivals. A massive $700 billion bailout of Wall Street was deemed necessary to ward off an economic breakdown not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a threat that still remains.

"I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me," Obama told the throngs in Chicago. "You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."

The market downturn also appeared to strike the first death knell for McCain's campaign, as that, coupled with the unpopular Iraqi conflict, proved too much for voters to reward the GOP with a return trip to the White House. Obama never trailed in polls from that moment on, despite McCain's efforts to characterize his economic policies as "socialism."

"It was certainly the bringing back of President Bush in the race, with he and [Treasury Secretary] Henry Paulson on the television all the time -- that wasn't good for the McCain campaign," said Scott Rasmussen, independent pollster and publisher of Rasmussen Reports.

The one economic issue where McCain was initially able to strike a chord with voters - gas prices - faded into the background as gas prices plunged by nearly $1.50 nationwide since the economic crisis came into play. With GOP faithful chanting "drill, baby, drill," McCain's call for additional offshore oil exploration was at first embraced by voters, but that exhilaration dissipated as the credit crunch grew more dire.

Economy most important

Exit polls said 62% of voters believe the economy was the most important issue to them, CNN reported. The Iraq war was next, with 10% of respondents saying it was most critical. CNN also reported that 72% of first-time voters cast their ballot for Obama.

"This has been coming for a long time," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The fundamentals were just overwhelming. It was impossible for a Republican to win this year."

U.S. voters turned out in huge droves on Tuesday, lining up from coast to coast to cast their ballots in the history-making election. Record turnout was seen in most states.

While Obama held on to traditionally Democratic states such as New York, Massachusetts and his home state of Illinois, it was his string of victories in battleground states and close calls in what are normally safe GOP havens.

Obama will face a number of challenges in his first year in office, including how to resolve the ongoing financial-markets turmoil and to determine what strategies to adopt for Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. soldiers remain locked in battle with extremists.

Obama has vowed to pull out of Iraq by 2010, reduce taxes for all those with incomes of less than $200,000 and initiate a sweeping program to wean the nation off foreign oil.

Obama's presidency may well hinge on whether he can accomplish those tasks with the backing of a Democratic Congress.

"Governing is a lot tougher than getting elected, I can assure you," said New Jersey Gov. John Corzine, a former Democratic senator who supports Obama, in an MSNBC interview.

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