The Curtain Finally Falls On The Race

They should, by all rights, have entered Election Day with their moods matching the polls: Barack Obama elated by his seemingly substantial lead and large crowds, John McCain demoralized by the specter of defeat and meager turnout.

But in the final hours of a campaign that has seldom gone according to script, the candidates' moods and their campaigns' demeanor – quite fittingly - didn't follow the expectations. Obama seemed almost unsteady amid the emotional barrage of the end of the campaign and his grandmother’s death, while his aides held fast to solid, positive early voting numbers with a mood one Chicago staffer described as "cautiously nauseous."

A hoarse McCain and his top aides and advisers, clinging to the far weaker evidence of favored polls, evidenced an upbeat, even jaunty attitude through a grueling final day of airport hangar rallies that took them through seven states in just over 24 hours.

Obama, never a demonstrative man, gave little sign until Monday night that he had undergone a week of extraordinarily intense emotion. He campaigned at a less breakneck pace than his rival, holding just three events on the final day of campaigning.

Though he had learned early Monday morning that 86-year-old Madelyn Dunham, who raised him in his formative years in Hawaii, had died of cancer Sunday night, Obama still put on a cheerful appearance in Jacksonville, Fla, He betrayed a sense of being shaken, however – and later in the day, in Charlotte, N.C., he let his evident emotion show.

"This is a little of a bittersweet time for me," he said. "We have had a remarkable campaign and – when we started 21 months ago I didn't know how it would turn out, and no matter what happens tomorrow
I'm going to feel good about how it's turned out because all of you have created this incredible campaign."

His grandmother, he said. "has gone home. She died peacefully in her sleep, with my sister at her side. So there's great joy as well as tears." At one point, a tear could be seen running down his face.

Obama's staff also learned of the unexpected death of his Nevada state director, Terence Tolbert, on Monday, adding to the pall cast over what otherwise seemed a sense of confidence and nervous anticipation. Obama aides have forbidden themselves from discussing White House jobs – and the frantic scramble for those jobs – or even looking past Tuesday.

Obama's chief advisor, David Axelrod, hit the road with the candidate, lingering to watch the final rallies and expressing nostalgia at the end of the campaign.

In recent days, Obama has seemed almost resistant to giving himself over to the almost unavoidable surge of feelings presidential candidates often go through as the campaign curtain prepares to fall.

Obama gives a remarkably similar speech at every stop, rarely giving voters a peek into what he's really thinking. Until his wife and daughters arrived Saturday morning in Colorado, the joy seemed to be missing from his delivery. There was nothing distinguishable about his performance from city to city, other than the name he yelled out as a greeting. He had three awkward, bordering on testy, interactions with the press in the last week. From the outside, he looked like a candidate wary of the fishbowl and realizing that, if elected, he may never emerge from it.

First he was annoyed that the press pool followed him down a street in Hawaii when he ventured out of his grandmother's apartment for what he thought would be a solitary walk. On Halloween, he snapped at the pool and then jogged off with his daughter. And the next day, his staff turned a retail stop into a photo opportunity, shooing away the press as he ate dinner with his family after a minute of photographs. It was a break from custom.

"There is the presidential candidate and then there is grandson, and then there's presidential candidate and father. And sometimes those just don't sync u," said Robert Gibbs, senior strategist.

Aides noticed a change when his family joined him. "I don't want to say he is happier," Gibbs said, searching for the right words. "His focus is as much on his family as anything else."

Obama has also been traveling with two close friends and advisers, Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker.

The candidate's coolness, however, has contrasted with the scenes he inspires.

"I'm 76 years old and I'm just so excited, I'm just happy," a volunteer, Alverna Bracy, 76, told Obama, sobbing, when he visited his campaign's headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. "This is the best surprise I've ever had since my babies were born," she said, according to a pool report.

And the mood on his plane has been buoyant. As Obama rested in the front cabin Sunday night, reporters moved easily between the staff cabin and their seats, engaging in extended conversations with
aides, who haven't had to hunker down under any late breaking stories that threatened to upend the race. They've been more accessible than usual at events, too.

"I feel pretty peaceful," Obama said in a radio interview Monday morning, soon before learning of his grandmother's death. "It's up to the people to decide and the question is going to be who wants it more,
and I hope that our supporters want it bad, because the country needs it."


Peaceful would not be the adjective to describe the mindset of Obama’s opponent however. In the McCain camp, as some key state polls showed glimmers of hope, the nominee and his top aides seemed to revel in an almost gleeful optimism.

McCain has endured far worse than losing a presidential race, as he has often said. And if his campaign was on its way to thumping Tuesday, they didn't show it in the intensity and fervor of their home stretch.

McCain offered a fired-up and condensed version of his stump speech, rallying a series of modest crowds with jabs against Obama and Joe Biden and reminders of his own devotion to country and service.

Reflecting the unforgiving schedule he's kept, McCain showed signs of fatigue at an afternoon rally in Indianapolis, briefly mixing up Obama and Biden in his oft-repeated remarks and speaking with an
increasingly-scratchy voice and taking lozenges back on the plane.

But even as he raced from tarmac to tarmac, imploring voters to turn out at the polls in the face of what even his aides acknowledges are difficult odds, McCain displayed the loose sense of humor that has
been sometimes missing from what has been a campaign of intense highs and lows. To a degree that has almost become cliché, the Arizona senator seems at his best when political success seems most uncertain.

Twice, he used speeches to segue from praise for Sarah Palin to riff about her increasingly famous imitator.

"I really believe that Sarah Palin and Tina Fey are separated at birth," McCain said to laughs at a hangar stop in east Tennessee meant to draw coverage across the state line in Virginia. "I really do."

Keeping his spirits up, McCain was joined by his wife, Cindy, daughter Meghan and nearly all of the aides and colleagues who have stood by his side when his prospects for victory appeared even dimmer than now.

Sen. Joe Lieberman wore his lucky red sweater, putting a campaign talisman ahead of mild November temperatures.

Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who has become a favorite road warrior sidekick of McCain, boogied down to all-too-familiar campaign rally standards, turning tarmacs into his own private dance floor.

And even Mark Salter, McCain's often dour speechwriter and alter ego, allowed himself a smile, working his way through a dish of peach cobbler in the press compartment of the campaign plane and joking with reporters about what exactly the candidate ate for lunch as though it were privileged information.

The light atmosphere was attributable to a genuine feelingfrom the candidate on down that winning the race, while still unlikely, was still a possibility and that he has always competed best from behind.

"From the beginning we've always felt like we were the underdog in this race and, you know, that's a place that McCain is comfortable in, you're seeing it out there today," said senior adviser Matt McDonald,
standing between the campaign jet and a stage on a tarmac in Indianapolis. "If this election has taught anyone anything it's that you don't predict what happens tomorrow."

Aside from that you-never-know bit of hope, McCain aides also latched onto something more empirical: closer poll numbers in battleground states and an unusual number of still-undecided voters.

"If we get all our Republicans out and have the undecideds move two-to-one [our direction] we're in," said Charlie Black, another top McCain adviser, catching a smoke before heading into a rally just outside Pittsburgh.

But their still-alive prospects aside, McCain and his campaign were also plainly happy to be nearing the finish of a two-year odyssey.

Campaign manager Rick Davis devoted part of a lengthy session with reporters on the plane late Sunday night to lamenting the deficits McCain faced and other aides privately brought up the GOP's troubles and Obama's yawning advantage in resources and enthusiasm.

Even as the campaign remained upbeat, these challenges were on display throughout the final day, as McCain drew small crowds in major markets such as Tampa and Pittsburgh more fitting for the final fly-around of a gubernatorial candidate than a presidential nominee.

But if it the lackluster turnout bothered them, campaign aides didn't show it.

In perhaps the most unmistakable reminder that the election is at hand – the political equivalent of summer camp coming to an end or a high school graduation – Davis and a small group of aides who have forged a tight-knit bond threw arms around one another and struck a chummy pose on the tarmac in Pennsylvania, standing for one final commemorative picture in front of the soon-to-be decommissioned Straight Talk Air.

Obama gathered his traveling staff for a similar photographic keepsake on the tarmac in Jacksonville.

But for his campaign, there was still a tenseness that can come with being the favorite. At day’s end, Obama's aides told reporters to clear their belongings off his jet and start finding their own lodgings in Chicago.

Carrie Budoff Brown contributed to this story.
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