US Presidential Election of 2008 (United States)

The two men nominated by their parties in 2008 as candidates for the presidency were a study in contrasts. Republican John McCain was a 72-year-old Vietnam war hero who, as a long-serving senator from Arizona, earned a reputation as a maverick within his own party. Democrat Barack Obama, 47, was an African American former professor of law at the University of Chicago who thrilled crowds with his charismatic oratory and calls for fundamental changes in national policy.

TIME profiled the two men and their very different paths to their party’s nomination.

The Resurrection of John McCain

In war and in politics, John McCain has endured more than his share of near-death experiences. He’s been shot out of the sky and held captive, hung from ropes by his two broken arms, and beaten senseless. His 2008 campaign is his second run for president; he lost before, nearly lost again, and was all but disowned by his party. So on 19 January, the night of South Carolina’s Republican primary, when the victory he needed to keep his campaign alive seemed as if it might be slipping away, McCain stood silent amid the chaos of his crowded hotel suite, his eyes fixed on the TV screen. Rumors that the primary was about to be called for McCain had fizzled, supplanted by whispers that Mike Huckabee had taken a slim lead. For a moment, it all seemed as though it were going to fall down again.

But the announcement came: “McCain wins South Carolina!” The room erupted in cheers; McCain’s wife Cindy dissolved into tears; and the candidate’s pale, scarred, 71-year-old face spread into a huge grin. It was the beginning of his resurrection, which culminated in his selection as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee at the party’s September convention in Minnesota—one year after his once formidable campaign all but collapsed in debt and acrimony in the summer of 2007.

The towering obstacle between McCain and victory was not so much his rivals for the nomination but the suspicion long held by many Republicans, especially rock-ribbed conservatives, that the senator and former war hero was too much the maverick on issues that matter deeply to them to be trusted to occupy the White House.

Conservative fears about McCain are often irrational: through a 25-year career in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate, McCain proved himself consistently pro-life on abortion and a hawk on defense, a scourge of wasteful government spending and a generally reliable vote in favor of tax cuts. Yet at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of party power brokers, McCain was booed.

But it is also true that conservatives have a lengthy bill of complaint against McCain. In the past decade he has joined with Democrats on a series of crusades in Congress—with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and Ted Kennedy on immigration reform—that a majority of Republicans have opposed. He voted against President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, citing the need for fiscal restraint. And during his 2000 campaign, he labeled Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance.”

He has seemed to delight in doing battle with members of his own party and creed. All the while—and this may be what galls conservatives most—McCain has been hailed by liberals and lionized in the mainstream news media for being a rebel. This maverick reputation, so prized for its general-election appeal, made it difficult for McCain to pass the primary threshold.

The Right Stuff. Both conservative and independent voters have the same question about McCain: what kind of Republican is he? In 2000, when the US was at peace and the economy was luxuriating in the frothy end days of the first Internet boom, McCain’s first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues. McCain was the authentic hero, the fighter pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was the reformer and the straight talker, the rare politician who— perhaps because of his experience as a POW—wasn’t going to compromise his principles or hold his tongue to please his party. He was also, at his core, still the rowdy, runty, red-tempered plebe who finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy despite an IQ of 133. McCain became a symbol in 2000 of courage and candor. Few took close looks at his policy positions. It was almost enough to get him the gOp nomination.

In 2008 it is different. Character and authenticity still matter, but McCain’s reputation as an expert on defense and foreign affairs carries far greater weight in the post-9/11 world than it did eight years before. On Iraq, McCain supported the invasion and still does. But he was an early critic of the way the Bush administration was prosecuting the war and called for a change in strategy that would include a surge in US troops to gain control of Baghdad. At the time, advocating an increase in US troop levels in Iraq rather than a reduction was unpopular even within the GOP. But McCain stood by Bush when the policy was implemented.

The success of the troop surge gave McCain points for prescience and reaffirmed his political courage. Yet there was a downside too. As violence in Iraq ebbed, economic anxiety rocketed to the top of voters’ concerns. The shift exposed one of McCain’s weaknesses. He is a conviction politician, passionate about the issues that animate him, dismissive of and uninterested in those that don’t. Iraq, foreign policy, the military, and treatment of veterans—these topics get him excited. In the domestic realm, he’s fire and energy when he rails against pork-barrel spending. But mention other issues—taxes, health care, education policy—and he briefly resorts to talking points before changing the subject.

What’s both refreshing and vaguely masochistic about McCain is that even when he knows it’s in his short-term political interest to dodge a question or adjust his message, he often just won’t—or can’t—do it. If McCain wins the White House, he will be 72 when he takes office, the oldest person ever to ascend to the presidency. He has suffered serious skin cancers over the years, not to mention brutal physical torture as a prisoner of war. His age and health are of legitimate concern to voters. But McCain doesn’t downplay his liabilities; he highlights them. “I’m older than dirt, with more scars than Frankenstein,” he jokes. Yet there are few who doubt that the aging war hero— because of his appeal beyond his party—could well become the nation’s 44th president.

Obama: How He Learned To Win

Barack Obama had not been in politics for long when he got his tail whipped by a veteran Chicago congressman in his own backyard. For a brief period that followed, Obama seemed a bit unsure about what to do with his life. Yet within four years, Obama had won a seat in the US Senate. Less than four years after that, he clinched the Democratic nomination for president.

How did this man come so far so fast? Much of the answer can be traced to the lessons of his first thumping. It was after that brief race in 2000 that Obama learned how to be a politician. He jettisoned his Harvard-tested speaking style for something more down-home. He learned how to cultivate those in power without being defined by them. And he learned how to be different things to different people: a reformer groomed by an old-fashioned machine boss, an African American heavily financed by white liberals, a Harvard lawyer whose bootstrapping life story gained traction with white ethnics.

In the heyday of Chicago’s Democratic machine, politics was open only to those with a sponsor. By the time Obama got into the game in the 1990s, it was no longer an exclusive club. Still, old practices died hard; the same virtues of loyalty and familiarity were rewarded by new bosses who expected political newcomers to pay their dues—and wait their turn.

One exception was Hyde Park, a small, integrated, partially gentrified neighborhood of professionals and University of Chicago professors. Obama moved there as a newly minted lawyerspecializing in civil rights cases and lecturing at the university’s law school. In 1996 he won his first political election to represent Hyde Park in the state senate. But after three years in the state capital of Springfield, a restless Obama turned an eye to the seat for the 1st congressional district of Illinois.

Since 1992, the heavily black 1st had been represented by Bobby Rush, who cofounded the Illinois Black Panther Party before going mainstream as an alderman and ward committeeman. But Rush stumbled badly in early 1999 when he lost to incumbent Richard M. Daley in the Democratic primary for the mayor’s job. Obama argued that Rush had failed in leadership and vision. But his delivery was stiff— “more Harvard than Chicago,” said an adviser who had watched Obama put a church audience to sleep. He was a cultural outsider, and Rush attacked his Ivy League education: “We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees,” he argued. Not growing up on the South Side raised other suspicions about Obama, as did his white mother. When the race was over, Rush piled up 61% of the vote, compared with 30% for Obama.

Once More, with Friends. The campaign left Obama US$60,000 in debt and unsure of his future. At 38, he was a state legislator in a party out of power, a black politician trounced in the black heartland, an outsider in the tribal world of Chicago politics. His long absences from home had angered his wife. Now he saw a way out: a statewide race for the US Senate seat held by Republican Peter Fitzgerald, up for reelection in 2004. But if Obama were to become the Democratic nominee, he would have to win the support of working-class blacks and party regulars. He found a mentor in the unlikely form of Emil Jones, a former sewer inspector in Chicago who had worked his way up the Democratic machine on the Far South Side to become Illinois’s senate president in 2003, a pork-barreling, wheeling-and-dealing powerhouse.

By embracing Obama early, Jones stopped pivotal endorsements of rivals and helped Obama line up support from groups that had large black memberships—teachers, government employees, and service workers. In control of the state Senate agenda, Jones picked Obama to steer and ultimately get credit for laws passed late in 2003 that had been long sought by the black community: death-penalty reform, fattening tax credits for the working poor, and a measure to curb racial profiling.

Obama also learned the art of public speaking at the scores of black churches he visited in 2000, absorbing the rhythms of pastors and watching how their congregations reacted. Speaking at their Sunday services, he linked his candidacy to the larger march forward of African Americans. He often mentioned his pastor, Jeremiah Wright (though Wright’s strident attacks on racism in the US led Obama to break ties with him in 2008).

Obama’s rise from a modest upbringing to the pinnacle of US education drew a connection to the life struggles of ordinary people. Partly as a result, he won the support of some small-town white lawmakers whom he’d gotten to know in legislative battles and occasional poker games in Springfield.

Obama was now politicking at a high level and building a different kind of organization to pay for it. He opened a rich vein of political cash in Chicago’s black business elite, a new generation of corporate, banking, and manufacturing executives. With the support of Penny Pritzker of the Hyatt hotel clan, he won over Chicago’s biggest political donors, many of them Jewish professionals and business owners.

Obama raised almost US$6 million in the primary. More than half his war chest came from people working for industry groups—legal, securities, real estate, banking, health care, utilities, and insurance among them. His Democratic rivals tore each other up, letting Obama keep to the high road. At a Chicago rally against the US invasion of Iraq, he declared, “I don’t oppose all wars. What I’m opposed to is a dumb war.” His prophetic words would power his campaign for the presidential nomination four years later.

The Senate race turned into a rout, with Obama taking nearly 53% of the vote in a three-way race. He scored a landslide in the black community, handily won a pair of ethnic-white wards on Chicago’s Northwest Side, and earned a third of the downstate vote, backed by college students and farmers.

The seeds of Obama’s political future were planted during that Democratic primary campaign. At his primary victory party in May 2004, he noted the improbable triumph of a “skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name like Barack Obama.” And then he repeated a line that had capped his campaign commercials:

“Yes, we can. Yes, we can.” 1492 Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, discovers America, 12 October.

1513 Ponce de Leon of Spain lands in Florida and gives that region its name.

1534 France sends Jacques Cartier to find a route to the Far East; he explores along the St. Lawrence River, and France lays claim to part of North America.

1541 Hernando de Soto of Spain discovers the Mississippi River near the site of Memphis.

1565 St. Augustine, the oldest permanent settlement in the US, is founded by Spaniards.

1587 A party under John White lands at Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina); when White returns three years later, the entire settlement has disappeared.

1607 The English make the first permanent settlement in the New World at Jamestown; Virginia becomes the first of the 13 English colonies.

1619 The first representative assembly in America, the House of Burgesses, meets in Virginia; the first blacks land in Virginia.

1620 Pilgrims from the ship Mayflower found a settlement at Plymouth.

1649 The Act Concerning Religion passed by Maryland’s legislature is the first law of religious toleration in the English colonies.

1682 The Sieur de La Salle explores the lower Mississippi valley and claims the entire region for France.

1733 Georgia, the 13th and last of the English colonies in America, is founded.

1754 Both England and the colonies reject the Albany Plan of Union to unite the colonies. The French and Indian War between France and England begins in America.

1763 The Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War; Britain wins control of the New World; Louisiana is ceded to Spain, Florida to Britain.

1765 The Quartering Act and the Stamp Act anger Americans; nine colonies are represented at the Stamp Act Congress.

1770 British troops fire on a crowd, killing five people in the so-called Boston Massacre.

1772 Committees of Correspondence are organized in almost all of the colonies.

1773 The Boston Tea Party, the first action in a chain leading to war with Britain, takes place.

1774 The First Continental Congress meets at Philadelphia and protests the five Intolerable Acts.

1775 The battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill occur; the Second Continental Congress meets.

1776 The Declaration of Independence is adopted. George Washington crosses the Delaware River to fight at Trenton NJ.

1777 Americans capture Gen. John Burgoyne and a large British force at Saratoga NY.

1778-79 Gen. George Rogers Clark leads a victorious expedition into the Northwest Territory.

1781 Washington accepts the surrender of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown VA. The Articles of Confederation become the government of the US.

1783 A treaty of peace with Great Britain is signed at Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War.

1786-87 Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts shows weaknesses of the Confederation government.

1787 The Northwest Territory is organized by Congress. A convention meets to draft a new constitution.

1788 The US Constitution is ratified by the necessary nine states to ensure adoption.

1789 The new US government goes into effect; Washington is inaugurated president; the first Congress meets in New York City.

1791 The Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution. Vermont is the first new state admitted to the Union.

1793 Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, which leads to large-scale cotton growing in the South.

1800 The national capital is moved from Philadelphia to Washington DC.

1803 Louisiana is purchased from France. The Supreme Court makes its Marbury v. Madison decision; Congress halts the importation of slaves into the US after 1807.

1804-06 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blaze an overland trail to the Pacific and return.

1807 Robert Fulton’s steamboat makes a successful journey from New York City to Albany NY.

1812-14 The US maintains its independence in a conflict with Britain, the War of 1812.

1818 The US and Canada settle a boundary dispute and agree on an open border between the countries.

1820 The Missouri Compromise settles the problem of slavery in new states for the next 30 years.

1823 The Monroe Doctrine warns European nations that the US will protect the Americas.

1825 The Erie Canal, from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, becomes a great water highway to the Middle West.

1829 The inauguration of Pres. Andrew Jackson introduces the era of Jacksonian Democracy.

1836 Texas wins its independence from Mexico.

1843 The first migration begins on the Oregon Trail.

1845 Texas is annexed and admitted as a state.

1846 The Oregon boundary dispute is settled with Britain. The Mexican War begins.

1847 Brigham Young leads a party of Mormons into the Salt Lake valley, Utah.

1848 The Mexican War ends; the US gains possession of the California and New Mexico regions.

1849 The gold rush to California begins.

1850 The Compromise of 1850 admits California as a free state and postpones war between the North and South.

1853 The Gadsden Purchase adds 117,935 sq km (45,535 sq mi) to what is now the southwestern US.

1854 The Kansas-Nebraska Act reopens the slavery issue and leads to the organization of the Republican party.

1857 The Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court declares that the Missouri Compromise is illegal.

1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected president; South Carolina secedes from the Union.

1861 The Confederate States of America is formed; the Civil War begins; Union forces are routed at Bull Run, Virginia. Telegraph links New York City with San Francisco.

1862 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launches a Union attack in the West; the Confederate invasion of Maryland is halted at Antietam. The Homestead Act grants 160 acres to each settler.

1863 Federal forces win decisive battles at Gettysburg PA, Vicksburg MS, and Chattanooga TN. The Emancipation Proclamation takes effect.

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