By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Chicago
Even the sound engineer got the applause of his life. It was just before 10 p.m. and the networks had declared Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. Cheers were ringing out across Grant Park in Chicago, the scene of Obama's election party. The technician stood on the stage, in front of 25 huge US flags and counted "one, two, three" before saying with pleasure: "I am the sound check for the next president of the USA."
The journalists in the press area were supposed to be conducting interviews, maintaining their objectivity. However many hugged each other and took photos, some even danced. "Obama, Obama," went the cries and "USA" was projected onto one of the massive skyscrapers that surround the park.
The technician was announcing more than just a sound check. It was the promise of a new tone -- for America and for the world. Even conservative commentators recognized this. "We have just achieved an incredible milestone for which the world has to have more respect for the United States," Republican analyst Bill Bennett, a one-time Reagan aide, told CNN.
The new president is a man with the name Barack Hussein Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who has a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. A man who promises "change" and "hope" -- a new America.
Then he repeated the message that he has stayed loyal to in speech after speech. The message of a united America. "We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America."
"We Did It"
The audience held their T-shirts high. They now said "We Did It," instead of just "Yes, We Can." Others pointed to the giant TV screens, which showed all of the states and their election results. Four years ago, even eight years ago there had been a clear picture: The coasts were blue for the Democrats, across the middle and in the South it was reliably red for the Republicans.
Now, however, there are specks of blue in between. Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada. Obama won in states like Virginia which had not voted for a Democratic candidate in four decades. Other conservative strongholds like Indiana swung to Obama, and North Carolina could still do so, the state hasnít been called yet.
Obama has kept his promise to build new bridges across the country. He has forged a new coalition: from the traditional Democratic base like rich college graduates, liberals on the East and West Coasts, labor union members and Jewish voters. And then there were others who tended to vote for the Democrats but could not always be relied upon: young people, students, African Americans -- this time they turned out to vote in droves. And there were also voters who had turned away from the Democrats, like Hispanic Americans, who had given George W. Bush disproportionate backing in the previous two elections.
But there were also older white voters, ordinary people. John McCain's strategists believed that if rural America turned out to vote then he could win. They may well have turned out to vote, but they could no longer be relied on to vote for the Republicans.
McCain's defeat was clear early on in the evening. By around 7 p.m. a CNN reporter stood in the middle of a throng of Democrat supporters and had to scream at the top of her lungs to be heard: "The party has already started here." The station switched to the McCain party in a luxury hotel in Arizona, where a youth choir was singing "God Bless America," while hardly anyone in the audience stirred. The CNN reporter described the mood there as "very different."
A short time later, just before 7.30 p.m. New Hampshire was called for Obama -- a tough blow for McCain, who had relaunched his career there with two primary wins and had hoped for another comeback.
A few minutes later the Democrats had won Pennsylvania -- and answered a central question of the campaign. Could a black candidate actually convince ordinary white voters? The very people who he had complained -- in his only big campaign gaffe -- cling to guns and religion? Hillary Clinton supporters, who had turned away from Obama in the primaries?
He did it and with bravado. Pennsylvania's Senator Robert Casey, an early Obama backer, appeared in front of journalists in the media center to explain why. "A lot of it has to do with his message of change, and his strength of character -- people saw a steady leader during economic crisis," he told reporters.
And it was clear hour by hour that Obama was heading for a majority. Ohio, always hard-fought: for Obama. Florida, the constant battleground: for Obama. By the end of the night the result indicated a triumph: he got more than 330 Electoral College votes, McCain didnít even manage 200.
A Thunderous Mandate
It was not just an election victory, it is a thunderous mandate -- the most radical cry for change in the US since Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.
The Democrats have also triumphed in Congress. They have increased their majority in the House of Representatives and now also have one in the Senate. McCain's tactic in the final days of the race of raising fears of a sweeping Democratic takeover did not bear fruit. The new power relations mean that Obama can expect to have to deal with some very self-confident Democrats in Congress.
But now was not the time for these kinds of doubts. The Democratic Party seemed more unified than ever on Tuesday night, its leading figures embraced the new charismatic leader -- its members hung on his every word. The Obama team didnít announce any musical performance for the election party in Chicago. They were relying on the power of words -- that have carried this candidacy like perhaps no other in US history. And Obama didnít disappoint, from his very first sentence. "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."
However he didnít get lost in the rhetoric, something that Hillary Clinton had first accused him of, and John McCain and Sarah Palin had used against him. "We know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime."
It sounded somber but also decisive. Perhaps because he is secure of his allies. The million supporters of possibly the "best political campaign Ö in the history of the United States of America," as Obama called his huge Internet and grassroots movement.
As they made their way home from the party the activists and supporters heard beeps on their mobile phones. An e-mail had arrived from Obama thanking them: "We just made history. And I don't want you to forget how we did it. You made history every single day during this campaign -- every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends and neighbors about why you believe it's time for change." People showed each other their phones, with crowds greeting each other on every street corner, cheering loudly and shouting "Obama."
There is a new sound here after eight long years of Bush. And America is determined to listen to it.
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