A historic win: Voters elect Barack Obama first black U.S. president

Shattering a seemingly impenetrable racial barrier and tipping the country's political balance, voters elected Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the first black President Tuesday, choosing him to steer America through a period of economic crisis and international turmoil.

Obama will occupy the White House backed by a Democratic Congress after an audacious campaign that raised unprecedented cash, inspired a record turnout and culminated in a decisive victory.

The son of a black Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas will be sworn into office Jan. 20 as the nation's 44th president.

The 47-year-old Obama, who just four years ago was an obscure state senator, sidelined Vietnam War hero and Republican maverick John McCain along with the GOP's first female running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Obama's victory, built on a call for change and the promise of hope, came with the help of voters in traditionally Republican states - Virginia, Colorado and Nevada among them - and a near sweep of Democratic-leaning states, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan included.

In the climax of a presidential bid that showcased massive turnout across the nation, hundreds of thousands of euphoric supporters flooded Chicago's lakefront for a victory party in Grant Park.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts if America is a place where anything is possible ... tonight is your answer," Obama proclaimed before the roaring masses just a few miles from the impoverished Chicago neighborhoods where the Hawaiian native started his career as a community organizer.

In a historic speech punctuated by the campaign's "Yes, we can" refrain, Obama told the watching world "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."

In Arizona, McCain, who championed "Country First," conceded the historic election and praised Obama in an attempt to calm supporters who have jeered the Democrat as a socialist in the hard-fought campaign.

"Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country," McCain said, praising his foe's ability to bridge racial divides and inspire millions. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans."

Obama's victory follows not only an arduous battle with McCain but a brutal Democratic primary in which Obama routed the party's standard-bearer, former first lady Hillary Clinton, the nation's first serious female presidential contender.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to free the nation from foreign oil, expand health care coverage, cut taxes for the middle class and engage in more diplomacy with international leaders.

Obama will take over a country struggling with epic economic crises, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sapped by high energy prices.

Obama and vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, a veteran Democratic senator from Delaware, will succeed President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney after two terms, a tenure that included leading the nation through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At Chicago's massive lakefront rally Tuesday night, energetic supporters converged in a mass of mixed races and ages. They carried homemade signs and erupted in roars as states were called for Obama on giant TV screens in Grant Park.

"(Obama) is in the best position to unite our country," said Clarendon Hills native Joanie Vernasco as she stood amid the Grant Park throng.

As a college student, Vernasco is one of hundreds of young voters who volunteered on Obama's Senate campaign - a base he grew into the tens of thousands to fuel his presidential bid's grass roots organization.

Obama's rise to the presidency came swiftly, a trajectory that shot skyward when the U.S. Senate candidate stepped onto the national stage and delivered a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention.

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America," Obama proclaimed at the crescendo of his breakthrough speech.

Obama, only the third African-American ever elected to the Senate, garnered unprecedented media attention, which he channeled into a second best-selling book and a campaign to help Democrats win back Congress in 2006.

With eight years in the state Senate representing Chicago's South Side and two years on Capitol Hill under his belt, Obama launched his improbable presidential bid on the steps of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield where Republican Abraham Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech at an earlier time when race roiled the nation.

On that frigid February day, Obama told supporters, "Few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change."

Now Obama likely faces an uphill battle bringing Americans together after a caustic campaign and with the nation mired in economic and war challenges.

The nation's first black president-elect garnered significant support from white and young America, inspiring a coalition of voters hungry for a break with the past.

Obama supporters Tuesday included a convincing majority of women, young people, new voters and Hispanics. McCain, meanwhile, garnered a slight majority of votes from seniors and whites, exit polling showed.

McCain, 72, struggled early to motivate his GOP base and reach out to independents while being saddled with the legacy of Republican Bush, whose popularity has dipped to record lows.

McCain's military service inspired many of his supporters.

"Here is a guy I can really admire and respect for what he did in Vietnam," said Pat Brady, Illinois' national GOP committeeman from St. Charles.

At rallies across the country, McCain pledged to be the "steady hand at the tiller" as he painted Obama as a risky choice.

McCain surprised the nation by picking the GOP's first female vice presidential candidate, Palin, in late August. She is credited with bringing much-needed conservative and Evangelical support to McCain's campaign, but others questioned her qualifications.

Obama will have little time to savor his historic achievement.

Election Night marked a clear shift from a campaign that stoked passion in millions, to a look toward a nation facing tremendous challenges.

"I need your help," Obama told his detractors Tuesday, "and I will be your president too."

• Daily Herald staff writers Burt Constable, Ted Cox, Dann Gire and Jack Komperda contributed to this report.

President-elect Barack Obama, left, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden savor victory during their Election Night party at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night. Associated Press
President-elect Barack Obama waves after giving his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night. Associated Press
President-elect Barack Obama, left, his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Malia, 7, and Sasha, 10, wave to thousands of supporters at the Election Night rally in Chicago Tuesday. Associated Press

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