Bittersweet Election Eve for Obama

November 3, 2008 6:24:05 PM PST
Barack Obama called the last day of his presidential race "bittersweet." He carried himself with the confidence of a candidate who sensed victory after an intense, two-year campaign and learned that the woman who helped raise him wouldn't get to see the outcome.

As the first black Democratic presidential nominee began Monday in a Florida hotel room, he got word that his grandmother Madelyn Dunham had died at the apartment in Honolulu where he lived with her as a child. He went ahead with his campaign plans, grieving privately for several hours before breaking into tears in front of 25,000 people gathered in the rain for a rally at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

"She's gone home," Obama said as the rowdy group of supporters grew silent and tears ran down both cheeks. "And she died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side. And so there is great joy as well as tears. I'm not going to talk about it too long because it is hard for me to talk about."

It was a unique personal and humanizing moment in a long campaign that frequently turned ugly and, for Obama, has been an uphill struggle from Day One. He entered the primary race as the underdog against Hillary Rodham Clinton, and faced persistent questions about whether he was qualified for the presidency and nasty rumors that falsely suggested that falsely suggested a sinister background.

His grandmother was a central part of his real story, and he interrupted his campaign last month to visit her as her life neared its end. "Toot," as he called her in an abbreviated version the Hawaiian word for grandmother, raised a young Obama for several years in Hawaii while his mother lived in Indonesia. He explained to the North Carolina audience how Dunham inspired his campaign by her lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.

"In just one more day we have the opportunity to honor all those quiet heroes all across America," Obama said. "We can bring change to America to make sure their work and their sacrifice is honored. That's what we're fighting for."

Obama's wife, Michelle, also choked back emotion as she remembered her grandmother-in-law.

"This is an emotional time for us," Michelle Obama told supporters in Colorado. "We were hoping she'd hang in there but she didn't. But she knew what was going on."

All indications were that Obama was heading for success, unless McCain's supporters could pull off the upset they've been predicting.

Obama's election eve schedule reflected his confidence that victory could be in his grasp. While John McCain rushed around to seven states for last-minute campaigning on Monday, Obama didn't appear before voters until after 11 a.m., the first of just three events for the day.

Before that, he did radio interviews from the hotel room, then he headed out in sweat pants and a ball cap for a 45-minute workout at a gym.

"What is the one thing at this point that has you a little bit concerned?" syndicated radio host Russ Parr asked.

"You know, I feel pretty peaceful, Russ, I gotta say," Obama replied. "Because my attitude is, if we've done everything we can do, then it's up to the people to decide. And the question is going to be who wants it more. And I hope that our supporters want it bad, because I think the country needs it."

Obama's supporters were nothing if not fired up. About 9,000 came to his event in conservative-leaning Jacksonville, Fla., while across the state in Tampa, McCain drew less than 1,000. Obama's crowd was decked out in campaign T-shirts that said things like "Obama is my homeboy," and stood in their seats at Veterans Memorial Arena before he got there, dancing to a warm-up soundtrack that included India.Arie's song, "There's Hope."

By now clad in suit and tie, he told them: "I have just one word for you, Florida: 'Tomorrow."'

Actually, he had a lot of words for them -- recapping his long campaign and looking to the future -- once he quieted their screaming. Sensing victory, the crowd was exuberant.

"I voted for you!" called out an audience member.

"Thank you for the vote," Obama said, trying with a smile to pick up the thread of his speech in front of a crowd that was ready to celebrate. "All right, you all, let's settle down," he said later as they interrupted him with their cheers.

He said that after "21 months of a campaign that's taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are one day away from changing the United States of America."

Obama focused on voters in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia -- on offense in Republican red states, energetic but not as aggressive as McCain.

Obama reminded the crowd that McCain had campaigned in the same arena a few weeks ago and said the "fundamentals of our economy are strong." When the crowd jeered, Obama repeated his favorite line of recent days, "You don't need to boo, you just need to vote."

The speech hit his usual points:

-- "We are in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," and McCain would just give the country more George Bush.

-- McCain has served the nation honorable, but "the truth is John McCain just doesn't get it."

-- Something must be done about families who have no insurance -- or insurance that won't pay.

-- "I will end this war."

Meanwhile, the election.

When did it hit home that he might actually win? As far back as the night he won the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Jan. 3, he allowed during the day. Still, he said over and over that he and his supporters must keep working, assume nothing.

Not that he wasn't thinking ahead, too.

What keeps him up at night? asked ABC News Radio's Ann Compton. "Not actually winning or losing," he said. "It's governing."


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