CHICAGO — When the first Obama supporters cleared the metal detectors at Grant Park at a little after 6 p.m. on election night, they burst into a run across the open grass, some elbowing each other to get as close to the stage as the barricades allowed.
Many thought this would be the biggest thing they saw in their lives.
"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 the 125,000 people in the park and tens of thousands more surrounding it when he took the stage about 11 p.m. local time.
He praised his opponent, Republican John McCain, saying "we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader." McCain and President Bush both called Obama to congratulate him.
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Flanked by thick walls of bulletproof glass and surrounded by waving flags on an unseasonably warm night for Chicago, Obama thanked his wife, Michelle, whom he called "the love of my life," and told his daughters Malia and Sasha, "You have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House."
Obama recalled Abraham Lincoln's long ago words to a divided nation that "we are not enemies, but friends" and echoed Martin Luther King Jr., saying "we as a people will get there." He also implored his doubters: "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too."
To the billions abroad, he offered this:
"To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores," he said, "from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand."
To America's enemies, this:
"To those who would tear this world down: We will defeat you."
And to America's allies, this:
"To those who seek peace and security, we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright, tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."
Obama said he knew that his grandmother, who died a day earlier, was watching, and that he missed and owed an immeasurable debt to her and other family members now gone.
Civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson wept in the audience. Oprah Winfrey and the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am, who was behind the "Yes We Can" video for Obama, were among the celebrities in the crowd.
At 10 p.m. in Chicago, when the networks projected Obama as the winner, the crowd burst into cheers and tears, hugging and jumping amid chants of "Yes we can!"
"Oh my God!" gasped Angelyn Anderson, a 34-year-old black woman. "Oh my God." She blinked back tears and cupped her hands over her mouth and rocked back and forth on her feet. "My great-grandfather was born in 1900," she said. "He didn't get to vote until he was 64. This is so awesome. I'm never speechless, and I'm speechless now."
Black and white and other races, they came from down the street, across the country and in some cases from other countries. They were all ages, although older supporters and parents with young children instinctively steered clear of the mosh pit up front.
Caroline Boismery, 22, a French woman, wore a T-shirt with the word "France" a red heart and a drawing of Obama's face.
Patrick Kennedy, 35, a white teacher at a prep school in La Porte, Ind., waved a handpainted sign that said, "We have overcome."
Crying as he spoke, Kennedy said that one of his students, who was black and voting for the first time at 18 had told him, 'I'd never dreamed of this day. This is so much for me to have this day.'
"It's been a long struggle," Kennedy said. "As a student of history, to know what our country has gone through to get to this moment; skin color does not matter. A person of color has ascended to the highest position in the world and been judged not on his color but on his creed, on who he is. This is amazing."
"I don't think it matters anymore, I don't think race matters. For those people that literally sat there and said we can't elect a black man president because of racial stereotypes, they now see the true spokesperson of African-American culture being Barack Obama, not the divisive figures like Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson. We have a uniter that is going to help us see what is more important."
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