Election 2008

Charles Dharapak/AP

The Long Road to Election Day 2008

November 04, 2008 08:25 AM
by Liz Colville
Obama and McCain, united in their claims to depart from the Bush presidency, rose to their candidacies from distinct starting points, and ran very different campaigns.

Change vs. Experience

In 2007, Ariz. Sen. John McCain and Ill. Sen Barack Obama announced that they would be running for the presidency. Though both figures were well known nationally at the time, they were still only two names among a long list of other candidates including Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Republican governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, each of whom won enough votes in the primaries to be considered front-runners for their party’s nomination.

Sen. Obama, who announced his candidacy on May 2, 2007 in his home state of Illinois, arrived on the national stage with a memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. That November Obama became the first African-American Democratic man elected to the U.S. Senate, and he was soon discussed as a future presidential candidate. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996.

Sen. McCain, who announced his presidential bid on CBS’s “The Tonight Show with David Letterman” on Feb. 28, 2007, was a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, running on a message of “straight talk” against eventual President George W. Bush, a slogan he revived for his 2008 run. He is a former naval officer and POW whose decades in the Senate have earned him reputation as a Washington outsider who fights across party lines on issues such as campaign finance reform and immigration.

Background: How McCain and Obama Made It

Early on, the two candidates differentiated themselves through campaign styles and tactics. In April 2008, having all but secured the Republican nomination, McCain, a key figure in campaign finance reform, declared he would take advantage of public campaign funding for his presidential run, while Obama said he would reject public funding for his presidential campaign, should he win the nomination. McCain did not use public funding for the primary season. “No major party candidate has walked away from public financing for the general election since the system took effect in 1976,” UPI reported at the time.

During the primary season, Obama continued to assert himself through rousing rhetoric, emphasizing “change” while Sen. Clinton emphasized her experience as First Lady and in the U.S. Senate. Experience is believed to be the reason McCain surged ahead of Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, while change allowed Obama to propose a clean break from two decades of Bush–Clinton leadership, appealing particularly to opponents of the war in Iraq (Sen. Clinton voted for it), young voters and African-Americans.

In late August, McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, which boosted his approval ratings in the polls as potential voters were revved up by his choice of a Washington outsider and social conservative; Palin is a mother of five and is known for tackling corruption in her home state.

In October, Obama gained ground when former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who worked in the Bush administration, crossed party lines to endorse the Illinois senator. That weekend, Obama announced that he had “shattered campaign finance records in September, gaining an immense financial edge that will allow him to overwhelm Senator John McCain’s efforts in every corner of the country,” The New York Times wrote.

But in the campaign’s final days, national polls showed McCain catching up to Obama as both candidates continued to focus on the economy, particularly taxes, rallying in key states like Ohio and Florida.

Key Players: John McCain, Barack Obama

John McCain (1936– )

John Sidney McCain III was born to a navy family—his father and grandfather were naval officers—in the Panama Canal Zone. He volunteered at the outbreak of the Vietnam War and spent five years in prison camps after being shot down on his 23rd flight mission. He entered politics as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate in 1976. A supporter of President Ronald Reagan, he was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986, succeeding Barry Goldwater. Earning a reputation as a maverick rather than “straight-ahead conservative,” McCain gained more exposure with the 1999 publication of his autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” and ran for president in 2000.

Barack Obama (1961– )

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Kenyan goat herder-turned-economist father and a mother from Kansas; they divorced when Obama was 2 years old. Raised in Hawaii by his mother and maternal grandparents, Obama attended Occidental College and Columbia University and then worked as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. After working for Project Vote, at a law firm and as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, Obama joined the Illinois Senate in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2004, defeating Republican and fellow African-American Alan Keyes.

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