Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was elected the nation's 44th president Tuesday, breaking the ultimate racial barrier to become the first African American to claim the country's highest office.
A nation founded by slave owners and seared by civil war and generations of racial strife delivered a smashing electoral college victory to the 47-year-old first-term senator from Illinois, who forged a broad, multiracial, multiethnic coalition. His victory was a leap in the march toward equality: When Obama was born, people with his skin color could not even vote in parts of America, and many were killed for trying.
"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," Obama told more than 240,000 celebrants gathered along Chicago's waterfront. Many had tears streaking their faces.
"It's been a long time coming," said Obama, who strode on stage with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. "But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."
Obama was beating Republican John McCain in every state Democrats carried four years ago, including Pennsylvania, which McCain had worked vigorously to pry away. Obama also made significant inroads into Republican turf, carrying Ohio, Colorado, Indiana and Virginia; the latter two voted Democratic for the first time in more than 40 years. He won the swing states of Florida, Iowa and New Mexico, which backed President Bush in 2004.
In winning the White House, Obama modified the electorate: About 1 in 10 of those casting ballots Tuesday were doing so for the first time. Though that number was about the same as four years ago, most of the newcomers were younger than 30, about a fifth were black, and a fifth were Latino. That was greater than their share of the overall population, and those groups voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
He also won large majorities of female, black and Latino voters. Although he lost among white voters, Obama did better than Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in 2004.
Voters also handed Obama a fortified congressional majority, as Democrats picked up at least five seats in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House. The party knocked off at least two GOP incumbents, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
With Obama leading every preelection poll, his hometown of Chicago was primed for a celebration. Downtown skyscrapers stayed lighted for the occasion on an improbably warm November night. At Grant Park, giant video screens were tuned to CNN, and raucous cheers erupted each time a state fell Obama's way, until finally victory came just a few moments after polls closed on the West Coast.
Shortly after, Arizona Sen. McCain called the president-elect to concede. President Bush then telephoned with his congratulations.
In Phoenix, McCain, 72, delivered a gracious concession speech that nodded to history and his erstwhile foe.
"We have come to the end of a long journey," a somber McCain said. "The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight."
He shushed the crowd when they booed Obama -- "Please," McCain said, motioning for silence -- and urged them to join him in working with the incoming president for the greater good of the country. "Whatever our differences," McCain said, "we are fellow Americans."
McCain, burdened by his party's frayed image, prevailed in a band of states that make up a shrinking Republican base, mainly in the South, the Plains and parts of the interior West.
Two of the hardest-fought states -- North Carolina and Missouri -- were too close to call.
For most voters, the sagging economy was the topmost concern -- a dynamic that played strongly to the Democrat's favor. Six in 10 voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the nation, according to exit polls -- far more than cited energy, Iraq, terrorism or healthcare.
Obama alluded to those worries and others in his victory speech, offering a note of sobriety amid the celebration.
"The road ahead will be long," he said. "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."
Voters flocked to the polls in record numbers Tuesday, continuing a pattern of electoral exuberance that started in the primary season.