WASHINGTON — In the first week of 2008, Barack Obama rocked the political world with a win in the Iowa caucuses. But the question remained: Could this black man with a rich personal history and sparse elective resume make it all the way to the presidency?
Yes, he could.
Obama took us along on a wild ride, smashing political and racial barriers as he was elected the nation's 44th president in an electoral landslide. His message of hope and change — and the viral YouTube mantra of "Yes, we can" — resonated with millions of voters after eight years of George W. Bush.
All election years are for the history books, but this one seemed especially historic: The racial angle. The high stakes. The fascinating personalities. The huge amount of money raised. The intense, sometimes over-the-top interest in this campaign.
"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," Obama told his supporters gathered in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, and multitudes more in a restive nation.
It was quite a year.
Iowa is 95 percent white and 2.5 percent black, hardly hospitable numbers for a black candidate.
Yet, on Jan. 3, Obama glided to a win in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, a victory that signaled the strength of his campaign organization and the candidate's appeal beyond racial lines. It was Obama's oratory — delivered by memory — at the state's Jefferson-Jackson dinner months earlier that got Democrats thinking about the Illinois senator as their nominee.
"I never expected to be here. I always knew this journey was improbable. I've never been on a journey that wasn't," Obama told the Iowa audience.
Less than four years before, Obama — then a little-known state lawmaker from Illinois — captured the nation's attention with a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention. He talked about worshipping "an awesome God in blue states" and having gay friends in red states.
Now, after Iowa, he was suddenly the frontrunner. But the race was far from done.
Tears in snowy New Hampshire had proven to be the undoing of one Democrat — Edmund Muskie in 1972 — but it worked for Obama's chief Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The flash of emotion from the former first lady helped lift her to a win in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8.
The two battled for six more months, through every state and territory. Obama survived despite the incendiary comments of his former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose angry words filled an endless loop for television. Clinton won over white, blue-collar voters from the hardscrabble corners of the country, and survived despite an unpredictable husband, former President Bill Clinton, who was frustrated with the political outlook for his spouse.
While New Hampshire prolonged the Democratic race, it largely settled the Republican one.
John McCain, a favorite of the state's large bloc of independent voters, won the state where he had focused much of his retooled campaign. Nearly broke and with staff gone, McCain scrapped his tour bus and relied on supporters to drive him to events, even when the drive from a Rotary meeting was in a vehicle with a flat rear tire.
"In the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black," McCain liked to joke.
Wins in South Carolina and Florida followed, and McCain's rivals stepped aside — Mitt Romney, who spent $40 million; television star Fred Thompson, Baptist minister Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose strategy was to wait until the end of January for a win in Florida that never came.
McCain locked up the nomination on March 4, and the faces behind him on the stage were notable — mostly white males, some around the same age as McCain, a few a decade or two younger.
Five months later as he sought a running mate, McCain was in need of something to shake up the race and eager to rally his conservative base. This 72-year-old man's man — son and grandson of admirals, former POW who still bore the scars of the Vietnam War — looked to Alaska and to the former beauty pageant contestant who is that state's first-term governor.
When things were especially bleak — when the experts said he should abandon his campaign for the GOP nomination — McCain refused to quit.
"I can out-campaign anyone," he famously said.
He did in that crowded Republican field. He couldn't against Obama, not as the Republican carried the albatross of the Bush presidency. Not even with the endorsement of "Joe the Plumber."
In part, numbers proved to be McCain's undoing.
Obama raised a record-shattering $745 million to swamp McCain in advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts in crucial swing states, including a strong push to win over early voters. McCain, who had fought for campaign finance reform, collected $358 million, including an $84 million check in public funds that Obama once indicated he would take too.
In October, McCain's response to the financial crisis, a plummeting Dow Jones average and the government's $700 billion bailout proved unnerving to voters looking for sure and steady. He temporarily suspended his campaign to return to Washington to deal with the crisis, signaled he would skip the first presidential debate and then debated anyway as Congress struggled with a monetary solution.
Obama consistently attracted tens of thousands of people at his speeches and rallies — 75,000 in Oregon, 100,000 in Missouri. The best buzz McCain could generate was some 20,000 at a northern Virginia event — a crowd size largely attributed to Palin's presence.
Plucked from political obscurity, the 44-year-old Palin thrilled conservatives with her just-your-average-hockey-mom image and pitbull characteristics. Need a running mate to criticize the Democratic nominee on taxes, war and "palling around with terrorists"? Palin was it.
And when all was done, she wasn't enough.
The final tally: 365 electoral votes for Obama, 173 for McCain.
Not that that was the end. Many of the major characters have moved on: Obama has chosen four of his former rivals for top spots _ Joe Biden as his vice president, Bill Richardson as his commerce secretary, Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary and, most astonishingly, Clinton has his secretary of state. McCain has indicated he intends to stay in the Senate, and seek a fifth term in 2010.