CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a presidential race that has never lacked for drama, another riveting scene unfolded on the eve of the election as Barack Obama teared up before a crowd of 25,000 on a rain-drenched football field.
Madelyn Dunham, the 86-year-old grandmother who helped raise Obama and was ill with cancer, died early Monday in Honolulu, just hours shy of an election he had prayed she would survive to witness.
The Democratic nominee learned of her death while doing radio interviews from his hotel room in Jacksonville, Fla. He did not mention it at a raucous rally a few hours later.
But in Charlotte, Obama offered a tribute that brought a hush over the field.
"Look, she has gone home," Obama said, his voice hoarse. "And she died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side, and so there's great joy as well as tears."
Obama's voice cracked, and tears rolled down his cheeks. It's "hard for me to talk about," he said.
"I want everybody to know, though, a little bit about her," he went on. "Her name was Madelyn Dunham, and she was born in Kansas, a small town, in 1922, which means that she lived through the Great Depression. She lived through two world wars. She watched her husband go off to war, while she looked after a baby and worked on a bomber assembly line."
Obama called his maternal grandmother humble and plain-spoken, then wove her story into the speech he usually gives with little variation.
"She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America, who -- they're not famous, their names aren't in the newspapers, but each and every day they work hard," he said. "They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and their grandchildren. They aren't seeking the limelight. All they try to do is just do the right thing."
"North Carolina," he said, his voice blasting from loudspeakers across the University of North Carolina field, "in just one more day we have the opportunity to honor all those quiet heroes all across America. . . . We can bring change to America to make sure their work and their sacrifice is honored."
As Obama moved on to familiar passages of his speech, he dabbed his cheeks with a white handkerchief. Even without his loss, emotions were running high on his closing-day dash from Florida to North Carolina and Virginia.
At his Charlotte headquarters, Obama, who would be the first African American president, told volunteers, "I hope you guys feel like you've been making a little bit of history here. If we take North Carolina, we win this election."
Alverna Bracy, a 76-year-old black volunteer, sobbed and shuddered. "This is the best surprise I've ever had since my babies were born," she said as Obama put his arm around her.
The day was not without levity. MTV ran a half-hour "Ask Obama" special. One question led him to suggest that it was a waste of time to worry about passing laws against people wearing their pants too low. "Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants," he said.
After Obama's weekend of campaigning in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio, it was hard to tell whether mourning or fatigue had distracted him at his Jacksonville rally. Republicans, he told the crowd, were "spending a lot of money here in Ohio."
When the crowd protested with groans and shouted reminders that he was in Florida, Obama corrected himself. "I've been traveling too much," he said as supporters booed at his confusion.
"Listen," he joked. "They've been spending a lot of money in Ohio too."
Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.