With Election Day almost upon us, Democrat Barack Obama appears within reach of becoming the nation's first black president as the epic campaign draws to a close against a backdrop of economic crisis and lingering war. Republican John McCain, the battle-scarred warrior, holds out hope for a Truman style upset.
Whoever wins, the country's 44th president will immediately confront some of the most difficult economic challenges since the Great Depression. In that effort, he'll almost surely be working with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress, as well as among governors and state legislatures nationwide. GOP incumbents at every level are endangered just eight years after President Bush's election ignited talk of lasting Republican Party dominance.
It's been an extraordinary campaign of shattered records, ceilings and assumptions. Indeed, a race for the ages. Democrat Obama has exuded confidence in the campaign's final days, reaching for a triumph of landslide proportions. "The die is being cast as we speak," says campaign manager David Plouffe.
Undeterred, Republican McCain vows to fight on, bidding for an upset reminiscent of Democrat Harry S. Truman's stunning defeat of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Looking back only to early this year, campaign manager Rick Davis says, "We are witnessing perhaps, I believe, one of the greatest comebacks since John McCain won the primary."
The odds for Republicans in 2008 have been long from the start: Voters often thwart the party that's been in power for two terms. And this year, larger factors are working against the GOP: the war in Iraq, now in its sixth year, and the crisis on Wall Street and in the larger economy. Voters deeply distrust government and crave a new direction.
Republicans are girding for widespread losses. "It's a fairly toxic atmosphere out there," said Nevada Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the Senate GOP's campaign effort. Added his House counterpart, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole: "We haven't caught very many breaks."
Democrats are looking ahead to expanded power. "Things are looking very good," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the House Democrats' campaign committee. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Democrats' effort, predicted: "We're going to pick up a large number of seats and that's going to make Democrats very happy."
The Democrats are looking to claim a 60 vote Senate majority that would allow the party to overcome Republican filibusters, and could pick up two dozen or more House seats. Democrats also hope to pad their slim majority of governorships and increase their ranks in what already is their strongest majority in state legislatures in more than a decade.
The implications are far-reaching: Governors and state legislators elected Tuesday to four year terms will help preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts following the 2010 Census. The party in charge can redraw districts in its favor. Atop the ticket, Obama leads in national and key battleground state polling, though the race appears to be tightening as it plays out primarily in states that Bush won twice. Among the unknowns: the choices of one in seven likely voters who are undecided or could still change their minds; the impact of Obama's efforts to register and woo new voters, particularly blacks and young people; the effect of Obama's race on voters just four decades after the tumult of the Civil Rights movement.
"Right now, it's very clearly Obama's to lose, and I think his chances of doing so are pretty minimal," said Republican Dick Armey, the former House majority leader from Texas. He said the possibility of a McCain comeback is "getting down to slim-to-none."
An Obama victory would amount to a wholesale rejection of the status quo: voters taking a chance on a relative newcomer to the national stage, a 47-year-old first-term senator from Chicago, rather than stick with a seasoned veteran of the party in power. With strengthened Democratic majorities in Congress, he'd have to deal with the party's left flank while governing a country that's more conservative than liberal.
The Republican Party essentially would be in tatters, searching for both a leader and an identity. An Obama loss, or McCain comeback, would be a crushing disappointment for Democrats in a year tailor-made for the party. It would suggest McCain's experience trumped Obama's clarion call for change, and raise troubling questions about white Americans' willingness to vote for a black man. Blacks, in particular, might be furious and deeply suspicious of an almost sure thing that slipped away.