Barack Obama Wins Big: 'Change Has Come to America'

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

Barack Obama arrives onstage at his election-night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago

Barack Obama woke up this morning a candidate and emerged onstage in Grant Park tonight the next U.S. President.

Taking the stage to no music, Obama was sober and focused, underlining the problems he will face in the Oval Office and thanking his supporters, 125,000 of whom stood before him, for helping to elect him. "Above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to — it belongs to you," Obama said. "I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington — it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston."

(See pictures of Barack Obama's victory celebration in Grant Park.)

Though the word race was on the tips of the tongues of everyone present, Obama did not dwell on the historic nature of the election, saying of the subject only, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

On one level, Obama's victory party was anything but intimate. When the gates opened, people poured in, many sprinting ahead to try to get as close as possible to the stage. Some plopped down on the field, staking their claim as their comrades foraged through long lines for deep-dish pizza, hot cocoa and water. Every time a state was called for Obama — or whenever Suzanne Malveaux, who was broadcasting live from Grant Park, came up on the screens — the crowd went nuts. The atmosphere felt like an upscale Lollapalooza, except the throbbing music came in staccato bursts between CNN's Wolf Blitzer calling states as the election returns came in. The weather was unseasonably warm, so Obama's followers could believe that even God is smiling down benevolently on the Illinois Senator.

On another level, those present were united in their belief that they were witnessing history. Standing in the crowd of 70,000, Sharon Glass, 48, was afraid to believe it was true — that an African American had really been elected President. "I keep waiting for something to happen that they say it's not right," said the Chicago hairstylist, who is African American.

Standing next to her was Theresa Hipp, 50. "This means that anybody can be President now — women, Latinos, blacks," said the registered nurse from Oak Park, Ill., who is white. Though the two women didn't know each other, when CNN announced on the jumbo screens that they were calling the race for Obama, they danced and hugged each other, tears in their eyes. All around them, the crowd went wild, chants of "Obama" turning to "Yes, we can."

To Jesse Jackson Sr., who broke barriers with his 1984 and '88 presidential bids, Obama's strength in the South showed how much the country has changed. "This is a huge deal and a big paradigm shift in the South," said Jackson, who arrived at Grant Park soon after the gates opened. During the primaries, former President Bill Clinton had belittled Obama's primary win in South Carolina by comparing it with Jackson's.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said Obama's victory in his state put his mind at ease about racism in America, noting that Obama did much better with older and white voters in his state than anyone had thought possible a month ago. "I always thought there was a possible prejudice factor in the state," he said. "I hope what this means is that we've washed that away, not only in our state, but across the country."

For Oprah Winfrey, the television personality and Obama supporter, this is a "big moment for all of us." "I think he's going to do something for the world," she told a group of reporters standing before the VIP tent before doing a little jig. "This happened because we did this. We did this."

The stage in Grant Park was set to highlight the themes of the campaign: by holding the event outdoors and throwing the gates open to tens of thousands of supporters, the campaign emphasized the grass-roots nature of Obama's nearly two-year effort. The crowd was incredibly diverse, in terms of not only race but also age. There was a heavy emphasis on Chicago, from the stands hawking deep-dish pizza (a local specialty) to the setting on the banks of Lake Michigan in the heart of the city. Skyscrapers lining Grant Park featured U.S.A. and Vote 2008 written in office lights on them, and six spotlights spun dizzying patterns in the sky, adding to the movie-premiere feel of the night. Obama spoke from a podium before a semicircular row of 26 American flags, which lined a blue backdrop. On either side he was flanked by 10-by-15-ft. clear bulletproof walls, protecting him from potential snipers in the high-rise buildings that line the park.

The scene at John McCain's election-night gathering could not have been more different. For weeks, McCain's crowds had included what Sarah Palin might call "real Americans"— flag-waving red staters with hunting hats, facial hair and well-worn jeans. Classic rock and contemporary country music played at the events.

By contrast, McCain's election-night celebration had a country-club feel. The palm trees were lit with color-changing pastel lights, and the women in the crowd sipped wine in black cocktail dresses. The setting was the tony Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa. McCain gave his address on the resort's lawn. The desert mountains were not lit, but colored spotlights astride a giant American flag provided a dynamic backdrop. More than 1,000 people cheered him on while an overflow ballroom broadcast the remarks a few hundred feet away. "Though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours," he told the crowd, flanked by his wife Cindy, his running mate Sarah Palin and her husband Todd. "I would not be an American worthy of the name should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for half a century."

Obama praised McCain for the race he ran and for his service to America. "I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead," Obama said of McCain and Palin. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you — we as a people will get there." Obama left the stage not to one of his bouncy campaign songs that got people clapping but to the serious theme of the movie Remember the Titans — sober music meant to underline the momentousness of the historic moment, when America elected its first black President.

With reporting by Michael Scherer / Scottsdale, Ariz. and Karen Tumulty / Chicago