Image: Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Democrat Barack Obama is introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton during a campaign stop in New York in July. 
updated 11/2/2008 9:44:57 AM ET 2008-11-02T14:44:57

It was a race so long that John McCain seemed to run it twice, once as the Republican front-runner who fell, then as an insurgent on a shoestring.

Or, as Barack Obama often described an odyssey of two years: "There are babies who've been born and are now walking and talking since we started this campaign."

But even that doesn't fully capture the sprawling race for the White House, down now to a choice between Obama, a Democrat bidding to become the first black commander in chief, and John McCain, a Republican in search of one final comeback.

Images from the canvas
- A grinning Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Republican presidential hopeful, ordering his campaign bus driven around the track at the NASCAR oval in Daytona Beach, Fla., last winter. A political consultant's nightmare — candidate's bus goes in circles, past endless rows of empty seats.

- Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards, confessing to an extramarital affair with a woman hired to make videos for his presidential run. "I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic," he explained.

- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, previewing a television commercial for reporters in Iowa and announcing, as aides looked on in disbelief, that it wouldn't air because it violated his pledge to run a positive campaign. In it, Huckabee questioned GOP rival Mitt Romney's character: "If a man is dishonest to obtain a job, he'll be dishonest on the job."

- Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but talking, talking, talking about himself. He used the word "I" 94 times in one 10-minute stretch in Iowa, and mentioned her only seven.

- McCain's campaign, taking advantage of Hurricane Gustav to keep an unpopular President Bush from taking the stage at the Republican National Convention. Bush instead addressed delegates via satellite from the White House. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared not at all.

- Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, bestowing the famous family's blessing on Obama when it mattered, in midwinter. Then months later, ill with brain cancer, rallying the Democratic National Convention in Denver. "The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on," he said to the roars of thousands.

New lessons
On both sides of the political divide, the campaign taught new lessons about religion, gender and — especially — race.

Obama, a Christian, struggled for months to combat false Internet-spread rumors that he was a Muslim. Romney, a Mormon, followed an example set by John F. Kennedy, who had attempted to ease voter fears about Catholicism. "A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith," Romney said.

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Gender politics was particularly tricky.

In a race for history, little that Clinton did sparked more conjecture than the moment she suddenly choked back tears in New Hampshire.

Months later, in defeat, she said proudly she and her legions of supporters had been able to put "about 18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling that has kept women from advancing to the White House.

Republican running mate Sarah Palin, only the second woman named to a national party ticket, could joke that lipstick was the only difference between a hockey mom like herself and a pit bull.

But Obama drew criticism several days later when he said McCain's call for change in Washington was like putting "lipstick on a pig."

Racial politics
Racial politics was a constant presence.

In mid-March, Obama was thrown on the defensive when it was disclosed that his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had accused the United States of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism. His candidacy in peril, Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia that was an appeal to overcome racism and the black anger and white resentment it spawns.

He criticized Wright, yet said, "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother."

Later, after Wright resurfaced, Obama decided he could, after all, disown him.

This campaign showed dramatically how a politician could go back on his pledge and profit politically.

Obama first said he would accept public financing for the fall campaign, then declined it and raised unheard of amounts.

"You didn't tell the American people the truth," said McCain, unable to keep up with the advertising onslaught.

Room for two
From the start, the Democratic race had room only for two.

"I'm in it to win it," the former first lady had said in entering the campaign.

So, of course, was Obama as he joined her in a race no Founding Father could have imagined — a black man against a woman, a presidential nomination the prize.

He promised change, she offered experience.

The long war in Iraq was the dominant Democratic issue then, and that helped Obama.

In the Senate in 2002, Clinton had voted to authorize the invasion, determined to show that a woman was tough enough to be commander in chief. Obama, a mere state legislator in Illinois, had given a speech opposing the war.

That difference was his early ticket, and Iowa activists punched it for him in the state's caucuses, the first test of the campaign.

Clinton salvaged her candidacy in New Hampshire, and the long slog was on.

From the start, racial and other differences were striking. Obama ran up outsized victories across the South. The former first lady recovered smartly as the economy began sliding and the industrial states began voting, but it was too late.

Obama's money, organization and eloquence eclipsed hers.

Dream Ticket?

Not.

The former first lady was interested but Obama looked elsewhere. Instead, he turned to Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a veteran of three decades in Congress, well versed in foreign policy, to be his running mate on a ticket to change America.

The convention ended in spectacular fashion, more than 80-thousand jammed into Denver's Mile High Stadium on a perfect summer night, and Obama pledged an end to the "broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush."

Not meteoric
Unlike Obama, there was nothing meteoric about McCain's rise.

After losing to George W. Bush in 2000, he was the front-runner eight long years later.

Then came a shocking organizational collapse in mid-2007. His support faded, a casualty of his position on the war and immigration, his funds dried up and his aides set on one another.

Somehow, he limped on.

And when Huckabee gained his improbable victory in Iowa, McCain suddenly had a new path to the nomination. As it always had, it ran through New Hampshire.

Within weeks, Mitt Romney spent $40 million of his own fortune to no avail. Giuliani's bus spun out. The other pretenders faded away.

Given a lengthy head start on Obama, McCain seemed to sputter. He spent weeks trying to raise money and gain the support of conservatives who had never thought much of him. Even his own aides said he either had no sustained campaign message or wouldn't stick to it.

One day, after a prepared speech at the Naval Academy, he told reporters on the Straight Talk Express that he was in the early stages of vetting candidates to serve as his running mate. Aides looked on in dismay, bordering shock, as they watched the candidate trump his own carefully scripted event.

Soon, McCain shook up his operation. The long seances with reporters at the back of the bus were history.

Behind as he headed into the convention, McCain uncorked a vice presidential surprise.

He chose Palin, a self-styled maverick with conservative views, to appeal to conservatives. Then he pivoted smartly, presenting himself as a man of the middle as he accepted the nomination.

"Change is coming," he promised, an attempt to move away from Bush.

"I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it."

He left his convention with the lead.

Economic crisis
The came the economic crisis, the retirement savings of millions shriveling by the day. An unpopular Bush on television daily, the personification of government's inability to stop the financial carnage.

Obama said the mess was a final judgment on eight years of Bush economic policies that McCain had supported. He outlined the changes he wanted to see and stuck with them.

McCain, of different temperament, did not.

He said the economy was fundamentally strong. He called for a blue ribbon commission to find out what had happened and why. He announced he would suspend his campaign to return to Washington until there was a solution. He changed his mind and resumed campaigning in time for the first debate.

He invoked Joe the Plumber.

"I am not President Bush," he said as the polls slid south on him.

A few days later, the White House announced the president had cast an absentee ballot for McCain.

Delighted, Obama's campaign couldn't wait to spread the word.

One night after the last combative debate, the two men met again at an annual charity dinner in New York, cracked jokes, paid tribute to one another.

Obama said few Americans had served their country with "the same honor and distinction" as McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in Vietnam.

McCain found Obama a man of "great skill, energy, and determination. It's not for nothing that he's inspired so many folks in his own party and beyond.

"I can't wish my opponent luck but I do wish him well."

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