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Obama wins US election: 'A change has come'

The Democratic senator Barack Obama, who has been elected the first black president of the United States, says "change has come to America" in his victory speech in front of 65,000 supporters in Chicago.

Barack Obama, who launched his campaign for the White House 21 months ago on the grounds where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech against slavery in 1858, has been elected the United States' first African-American president. The Democratic Illinois senator, the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, won in the North-east, the upper Midwest and the West Coast, cobbling together a decisive victory with more than 300 electoral votes and a comfortable, but relatively close, win in the popular vote. In front of 65,000 supporters at Chicago's Grant Park, Mr Obama promised "change is coming to America" as he gave a victory speech. "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."

His Republican opponent, John McCain, as had been expected, did well in the South and parts of the middle of America, but did not pose a serious challenge to Mr Obama as the votes were tallied across the country. Mr McCain conceded defeat to his opponent, saying he had congratulated Mr Obama in a phone call. "The American people have spoken and they have spoken clearly," Mr McCain told his supporters, speaking from outside the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. The US president George W Bush also called his successor to congratulate him on his "awesome night", according to the White House spokesperson Dana Perino. "Mr President-elect, congratulations to you. What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters," she quoted Mr Bush as telling Mr Obama. "Laura and I called to congratulate you and your good bride. I promise to make this a smooth transition." Mark Blumenthal, the editor of Pollster.com, summed up the race in an online discussion on washingtonpost.com: "Short and sweet: It's all about both the economy and dissatisfaction with President Bush. Americans are ready for a change."

Across America, turnout was large, the lines long and the wait often hours, for an election that was not only historic but deeply emotional for many voters. In Alabama, where US civil rights movement fought some of its most memorable battles, Glen McCord, the mayor of Yellow Bluff, said: "I feel euphoric... More than that I feel a sense of hopefulness, not only for our country but for the whole world. This is a culmination, I think, of a road that has been travelled. We're crossing the finish line if you will."

In Chicago, Mr Obama's adopted hometown, crowds packed Grant Park early in anticipation of his victory speech. About 70,000 tickets to the event had been handed out by the Obama campaign, but as many as 1 million people were expected to fill the streets outside. Dorothy McMillian, 50, an African-American small business owner from a suburb of Chicago, said the moment felt personal to her. Her great-grandmother was a slave, her grandmother was a sharecropper and her mother, now 81, grew up in Alabama in the segregated South.

"She was in awe," Mrs McMillian said of the moment her mother cast her ballot for Mr Obama earlier in the day. "She couldn't believe it." Mina Wilson, a resident of Chicago, headed to the park with her family on Tuesday morning, nearly eight hours before the public was even let in. "It means a lot on so many levels," she said, as a roar went up around her as CNN, broadcasting on the big overhead screens, called the state of New Hampshire for Mr Obama.

Her parents met during the civil rights era, in Mississippi, and she remembers talk of what it was like to be black in the segregated South. She was born in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American history, when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and the Vietnam War was dividing the nation. Mr Obama, to her, is a role model in every way. "He's everything that I would want my children to be," she said. "He's the kind of person I want to be when I grow up."

Her daughter Sequoia, 12, would not have thought of staying home. She wanted to see him win - in person. Early exit polls had Mr Obama winning easily among women, blacks and Hispanics, while whites supported Mr McCain, the Associated Press reported. Just over half of white voters overall were backing Mr McCain - a group that had favoured the US president George W Bush over John Kerry by 17 percentage points in 2004. Mr Obama won the votes of more than half of women, two-thirds of Hispanic voters and nearly all blacks who went to the polls.

The CNN commentator David Gergen, who has worked in the White House for both Democrats and Republicans, said the election of Mr Obama, was "a huge milestone. It appears a lot of people worked through the race issue and that is real progress". Mr Obama took the lead from the beginning when the first ballots were counted in New Hampshire and did not relinquish it. When the networks projected his winning the key battleground state of Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes soon after the polls closed there, the chances of Mr McCain gaining the White House seemed unlikely. Mr McCain had put a great deal of effort in trying to win the keystone state during the last weeks of the campaign.

In Phoenix, where Mr McCain lives, Sally Nieto, who was picking up a box of food at the Phoenix Rescue Mission, said: "I am really hoping Obama is going to turn this economic situation around. I get chills just thinking about it." Romard Conic, an African-American man voting at an inner-city Phoenix school, said: "I grew up on a military base, so I don't really see colour. It may be historic but I just want the right person in the White House. Also, I don't make $250,000 so Obama's economic plan sounds good to me."

As the night wore on, the mood grew more and more dim at Phoenix's Biltmore Hotel, where McCain supporters gathered. The line to the bar lengthened, and one campaign official, Will Shaddock, said: "We won't let the polls show us, we'll show them!" after Mr Obama carried Ohio, indicating Mr McCain's supporters did not want to give up hope despite the obvious. In the nation's capital, election-watchers were euphoric at the Hawk and Dove, a watering hole near Capitol Hill much favoured by congressional staffers and aides.

"I'm feeling great" cried Matthew Collingsworth, an advertising executive, who arrived at the bar at 4pm to start celebrating well in advance of any Democratic victory. "The reality of this country now is that our viability depends on the perception of us in the rest of the world, which is why Barack Obama has to win," he said. "For the last eight years, we've had a president who discredited us in the international community, who laughed at and disrespected a lot of people around the world."

Many of the people who partied in this part of Washington were young, highly educated and worked in government, such as Jeremy Zimet, 23, who was an intern at a federal department he did not wish to name. "I feel so good and this is only the second election I've voted in. I voted for Obama and I feel I made the right choice," he said. "Apart from economic demands, I hope Obama deals with Guantanamo Bay as that would improve America's standing in the world."

Mr Obama's big night was marred the death of his maternal grandmother, who passed away Sunday night at the age of 86 in Hawaii. Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle, accompanied by their two daughters, cast their votes at about 7.40 yesterday morning at Beluah Shoesmith Elementary School. The Washington Post reported that 96 per cent of the students are black and 85 per cent are poor. "You know, I'm happy I got to vote with my daughters," Mr Obama said. "That was a big deal."

Mr Obama's meteoric rise in politics came on the heals of the publication of his book "The Audacity of Hope". He had to fight off an intense challenge for the Democratic nomination from Sen Hillary Clinton, who started the race as the front-runner. He did not secure the Democratic nomination until June 3, as Mrs Clinton made one comeback after another. After Mr Obama prevailed in the Iowa caucuses in January, Mrs Clinton used an emotional speech on New Hampshire public television to get back in the race and stage a two percentage point win.

On Super Tuesday, Feb 5, 24 states held either caucuses or primary elections. While Mr Obama lost the major contest in California, he did pick up 166 delegates in the state to Mrs Clinton's 204. By the end of the night, the race was almost even. Over the rest of the month, the tide turned Mr Obama's way, as he won primaries in Louisiana and Washington, Nebraska, the US Virgin Islands and the Maine caucuses. A week later, Mr Obama picked up wins in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia. His momentum would continue, and he won Hawaii and Wisconsin on Feb 19.

On March 4, Mrs Clinton staged another comeback, winning Ohio and Rhode Island. She also won the primary in Texas, but the state splits on how its chooses it delegates and Mr Obama won the Texas caucuses held the same day and earned more delegates, Mr Obama then beat Mrs Clinton in Mississippi. In April, Mrs Clinton, with the backing of Gov Ed Rendell, won the Pennsylvania primary. From then until June, the two would each win races, but the battle had became a mathematical contest with Mrs Clinton's chances of winning the needed number of delegates diminishing with each contest. She banked her chances on the so-called super delegates, current or former party leaders or officials, who are free to support any candidate.

But by June 3, when Mr Obama won the Montana primary, it was evident that he would win the nomination, by winning the majority of both pledged and super delegates. During the Democratic National Convention in August, Mr Obama received 3,188.5 delegate votes, much more than the needed 2,118 to win. But Mrs Clinton's supporters did not go quietly as 1010.5 still cast their votes for her. After the roll call votes, Mrs Clinton called for a motion to nominate Mr Obama by acclamation. The Democratic National Convention approved. In front of a crowd of 85,000 at INVESCO Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver and 38 million Americans watching at home, Mr Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination. rpretorius@thenational.ae

- With reporting by Erika Niedowski in Chicago, Steven Stanek in Alabama, Gretchen Peters in Phoenix and Sharmila Devi in Washington, DC and agencies.

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