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The Amazing Race

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The Washington Post's David Broder explains why 2008 was the best election season he'd ever covered since the Kennedy-Nixon campaign.

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As for McCain, his barriers seemed insurmountable. His angry tirade against the right-wing preachers who had backed Bush in 2000 had alienated him from that wing of the party. He had become the chief cheerleader for an unpopular war in Iraq and the chief GOP spokesman for an immigration bill that most of his party despised. There were younger, more attractive alternatives, including Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Huckabee.

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But the voters -- bless 'em -- ignored the oddsmakers. They were determined to do their own thing -- set the nation on a new course, sharply different from that of George W. Bush. It did not matter much to them that McCain was too old, by conventional standards, to be running or that Obama's mixed-race background broke the historic color line on the presidency.

It was the emergence of these two implausible but impressive candidates that gave 2008 its special stamp. But they prevailed only after fierce struggles. McCain pocketed victory in New Hampshire but lost Michigan to Romney. He then turned to South Carolina, where he enlisted Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tom Coburn and even Jack Kemp to vouch for his conservatism, and won narrowly over Huckabee. When he beat the field in Florida at the end of January, the fight was over.

Obama could only wish for that quick a verdict. In South Carolina, Clinton deployed her most powerful weapon, her husband Bill, and for the first time in my life, I saw a former president commit -- and in effect squander -- the prestige and loyalty he'd won in office to the ambitions of his wife. But South Carolina was not the end. Every time Obama seemed to be within one win of clinching, Clinton came back -- in California, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obama could not shake her, but finally he wore her down.

The drama continued at the conventions. In Denver, the Democrats staged a celebration of newfound unity culminating in Obama's oration to a massive crowd in a football stadium. In St. Paul, the Republicans cheered McCain's surprise choice of a new heroine, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential candidate. Listening to the roars that rocked the hall, I was transported back to San Francisco's Moscone Center in 1984, when Walter Mondale made Geraldine Ferraro the first woman on a national ticket. In both cases, the euphoria was as genuine as it was short-lived. Neither woman was able to establish herself as a plausible "heartbeat away" from the presidency.

That was one of many disappointments in the general election. A potentially captivating experience was lost when Obama declined McCain's invitation to join him in weekly town halls, to stand together and answer voters' questions. The traditional debates were lackluster affairs, with few dramatic moments.

Two things have made these final weeks notable in my eyes. One is the unbelievable volume of television ads, especially on the Democratic side, financed by the unprecedented fortune in private contributions that Obama acquired after he broke his word and rejected public financing, with its $84 million spending limit. That put McCain at a serious disadvantage and probably dealt a death blow to the post-Watergate efforts to limit the role of money in presidential politics.

Second was the continuing tension over the unspoken issue of Obama's race. It had flared in the primaries, in part because of Bill Clinton's campaigning and in part because the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's Chicago minister and an important mentor for 20 years, was revealed to hold incendiary anti-white views. Obama delivered a personal, historically sophisticated address on race , as stirring as any such speech I had heard since the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, he broke completely with his minister and, thanks in large part to McCain's personal aversion to any suggestion of racial campaigning, the issue never fully emerged in a negative way this fall, sparing the country what could have been a divisive experience.

For decades, I have said that the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign was the best I ever saw. But most of the drama in that contest came after Labor Day. This time, the excitement was generously distributed over a whole year, with moments of genuine humor from Huckabee, a torrent of uninhibited conversation from McCain and Biden, and rare eloquence from Obama and both Clintons. The country faces a choice between two men who both promise the nation a more principled, less partisan leadership.

And meanwhile, what a show it has been -- the best campaign I've ever covered.

David S. Broder covered politics for The Washington Post starting in 1966.


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