White House race gilded by history

October 27, 2008 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, October 27 – "Historic" might be the most overused word of the White House race, yet the spellbinding plot twists of 2008 have undeniably made this campaign one for the ages.

Conventional wisdom lies in tatters after a race which shattered glass ceilings of race and gender, obliterated fundraising records and stretched the electoral calendar to hitherto undreamed of lengths.

When voters write the final chapter of a compelling political year on November 4, either Barack Obama will become the first black president or John McCain will be set to be the oldest, at 72, inaugurated for a first term.

Vast new legions of young voters are set to be drawn into the political process for the first time, partly attracted by Obama’s generational political shift, and the electoral map is broader than for many years.

A perfect storm of an exhausted Republican Party and grim economic times may meanwhile add up to a political realignment in Washington and hand Democrats a rare unchecked stranglehold on both Congress and the White House.

History was always beckoning in the 2008 White House race which was the most open for decades, as for the first time since 1928 no president or vice president was on the ballot at any stage.

With the United States mired in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and more than 150,000 soldiers mired in two foreign wars, future historians may look back on this year as a watershed.

As 2007 dawned, ushering in a campaign that now seems endless, Hillary Clinton was considered a lock for the Democratic nomination and was odds-on to give America its first woman president.

The former first lady spoke often about how elderly women born before they had the right to vote could cast a ballot for potentially the first female president.

But it was not to be, but her voters, as she put, it still punched "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling, and it took another historic candidacy to thwart her.

Drawing on the historical presidential mythology of Abraham Lincoln a fellow former state lawmaker in Illinois and the youthful legacy of John F. Kennedy, Senator Obama launched an audacious quest to be the first African American president.

Along the way, Obama, who campaigned in swing state Nevada on Saturday, became at the minimum a historic figure by becoming the first minority nominee of a major party.

He also built a formidable political organization, which though still untested in a general election, may go down in history as the most wide-ranging and effective political machine yet assembled.

In a staggering eruption of fundraising, Obama has so far piled up 600 million dollars to bankroll his effort, and repeatedly smashed monthly fundraising totals. Total election spending exceeds a billion dollars for the first time.

In a more ominous note for posterity, Obama was also offered Secret Service protection earlier than any other previous candidate, a sign of racial tensions still simmering below the surface of US society.

It might be demoralized but the Republican Party has been bent on making some history of its own.

If he confounds current polling and claims the White House, McCain would be the oldest first-term president ever — a factor that has sometimes focused unwelcome attention on the cancer survivors age and health.

He would also be the last US president whose politics was forged in the societal tumult unleashed by the Vietnam War, in which he carved a record of heroism and courage.

McCain’s vice presidential pick Sarah Palin offered another reminder that gender barriers are falling in American politics, despite Clinton’s defeat.

But the Alaska governor’s critics would unkindly carp that she set historic standards for being unprepared for high office in Washington.

The 2008 campaign also refined the way US presidential elections are fought, especially through pioneering uses of the Internet.

The Obama effort especially was more virtual online community than traditional political campaign, plugged into sites like Facebook and using tools like text messaging to build a grass roots powerhouse.

The McCain campaign meanwhile broke the mold of traditional political advertising and made up for its funding deficit by releasing YouTube web ads then watching as the media gobbled them up in hours of free coverage.


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