The Final Push
For Obama, Grandmother's Death Casts Pall on Optimistic Election Eve

By Shailagh Murray and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It took nearly two years, many ups and downs, countless smart moves, missed chances and lucky breaks. But finally Barack Obama could say the words: "One more day."

The senator from Illinois spent yesterday campaigning in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, states that have not supported a Democratic presidential nominee in years. He posed for a group photo with his traveling staff, grinning broadly in front of the gleaming white campaign plane emblazoned with the slogan that has carried him through his 632-day candidacy: "Change We Can Believe In."

"This is our last rally," Obama told a sea of supporters in Manassas last night. "After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, and 21 months of a campaign, we are less than one day away from bringing about change in America."

But the final day on the campaign trail was rooted in sadness. Obama learned yesterday morning that his maternal grandmother, the only survivor among the adults who shaped his young life in Hawaii, had died overnight at age 86.

Madelyn Dunham, or "Toot," as he called her, had been a beloved figure, described by Obama in countless speeches and interviews as a surrogate mother, pioneering female executive and proud World War II wife who worked on a bomber assembly line. [Obituary]

"She was the cornerstone of our family," Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng said in a statement announcing Dunham's death. "She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances."

Dunham and her husband, Stanley, had raised Obama in Hawaii during part of his high school years when his mother was living in Indonesia, and the candidate spoke to his grandmother often. Her poor health had not permitted her to campaign for him, but she had corneal transplants this year so she could see him more clearly on television.

His voice heavy with emotion, Obama announced Dunham's death to the Charlotte crowd, saying: "I'm not going to talk about it too long, because it's hard, you know, to talk about." He paused, and then continued, "I want everyone to know, though, a little bit about her."

He described Dunham as "a very humble person, a very plain-spoken person. One of those quiet heroes we have all across America. They're not famous. Their names aren't in the newspaper. But each and every day they work hard. They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and grandchildren. They aren't seeking the limelight -- all they try to do is just do the right thing."

He added: "And in this crowd there are a lot of quiet heroes like that. That's what America's about. That's what we're fighting for."

Obama traveled to Hawaii late last month to visit Dunham, who had cancer. He received word of her death about 8 a.m., and even before his advisers heard the news, they wondered whether something was amiss. Despite Obama's solid lead in most national and battleground polls, he seemed quiet, out of sorts. "He was subdued," senior aide Linda Douglass said. "It was very evident."

Presidential rival John McCain and his wife, Cindy, issued a statement of condolence to Obama and his family "as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives."

When Obama dropped by a campaign field office before his Charlotte event, he placed phone calls to voters while tossing a red-and-blue basketball in the air, and was heard discussing his grandmother in the context of a voter's home health-care problems. He did not mention her death.

"My grandmother was able to stay in a home all the way until recently," Obama told the caller, turning his back to the cameras. "Because she just had someone who could come in once in a while and that ends up saving a whole lot more money." He added, "It's a lot better for yourself and my grandmother."

While McCain raced through seven states in a 20-hour final stretch, Obama scheduled just three rallies on election eve, all symbolically placed.

First stop: Duval County, one of the flash points of the disputed 2000 Florida recount and subsequent Supreme Court intervention that put George W. Bush in the White House. "We've got to win Florida," Obama implored the cheering Jacksonville crowd.

Obama, wife Michelle, running mate Joseph R. Biden Jr., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and a host of surrogates have campaigned relentlessly in the state since early voting began, and their work seems to be paying off: Democrats have an overall 331,000-voter lead in early and absentee ballots.

Democratic presidential nominees have lost Duval County by large margins for 20 years. But more than a quarter of the population is African American, as were many of the 9,000 people who turned out for Obama yesterday morning.

Local Obama organizer DeJuane Thompson made an emotional plea that sums up the expectations and angst of many Democrats as they anticipate electing the first African American president. "We are one day, one moment, from the rebirth of our very nation," Thompson told the crowd. Then she admonished them: "Have you called every person you can think of? Some of you haven't. Push yourself a little bit harder."

Obama's next stop, in North Carolina, was aimed at converting a state that has not backed a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976. Democrats also are trying to wrest the Senate seat held by Elizabeth Dole, a Republican.

Obama's final appearance of the day was in Virginia at a rally at the Manassas fairgrounds. It was his 11th visit to the commonwealth since claiming the nomination. Virginia has not supported a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. Four years ago, President Bush easily won Prince William County, but since then Northern Virginia has attracted droves of younger, independent-minded voters who helped elect the past two governors, both Democrats, and replaced Republican Sen. George Allen with Democrat James Webb.

Indicative of the lighter mood as campaigning came to a close, Obama offered opinions on some unusual questions in interviews released yesterday. Answering questions from MTV viewers, he said he thought it a "waste of time" to try to outlaw drooping pants. "Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants," he continued. "You know, some people might not want to see your underwear -- I'm one of them."

And to help in his struggle to capture younger men, Obama made what surely will be a demographic-pleasing statement in an ESPN interview aired at halftime during last night's game between the Washington Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Asked what one thing he would change in sports, Obama advocated a college football playoff: "I'm fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams -- the top eight teams right at the end. . . . Decide on a national champion."

In another interview, with radio host Russ Parr, the candidate reflected on his nearly two-year campaign.

"This is like running a marathon," Obama told Parr. "On mile 20 you're tired. Mile 25, you're full of energy."

But now, he said, events are more or less out of his control.

"I feel pretty peaceful, Russ, I've got to say," Obama said. "It's up to the people to decide, and the question is going to be who wants it more, and I hope that our supporters want it bad, because the country needs it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company