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A Political Odyssey: How Obama's Team Forged a Path That Surprised Everyone, Even the Candidate

The speech did not end the controversy over Wright. His reappearance later in the spring, in a series of events in which he declined to take back his most controversial statements, brought a new test for the candidate. "The second [Wright eruption] was in some ways more painful because I felt that was a personal breach on the part of Reverend Wright," Obama said.

He added: "He's a great preacher . . . but Reverend Wright remained rooted in the rhetoric of the '60s. . . . What he was saying was not considered in any way exceptional in the African American community for his generation. He never updated or refreshed that worldview to accommodate the changes that were taking place in America. And what you were seeing in Reverend Wright and those statements were not only offensive to everybody in many ways, but it also showed an anger and bitterness . . . that may be more acceptable in some circles in the African American community but is never acceptable in mainstream America. And so you had that sudden, really volatile potential clash of visions."

Wright's reappearance came the week before two crucial May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. The evening before the primaries, Obama was in Indiana and had some time to relax before a late-night visit to a factory. As was often the case in moments of stress or relaxation, he was joined by friends Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt. Jarrett remembers Obama despondent, worried that the Wright controversy might undo all his campaign had accomplished. She said she had never seen him as down as he was that night.

"We had lost Pennsylvania and now we're going into a couple of pretty tough states," Obama told us, recalling that moment. "We [were] just getting our groove back and suddenly this [Wright] thing pops up again. And you felt like, well, maybe we're just not going to survive this. Maybe people are just going to feel too skittish or just feel that I was mortally wounded and that I wouldn't be able to survive a general election, and that could start changing how delegates think."

In fact, the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina proved to be effectively the end of Clinton's campaign. Obama easily won North Carolina and barely lost Indiana. Now there was no way for Clinton to amass enough delegates to win. A month later, on June 3, Obama celebrated the end of the primaries and his nomination at a rally in St. Paul, Minn. During our September 2008 interview, we asked whether, on that night, he felt caught up in the emotion of making history as the first African American nominated for president by a major party.

"I am very glad that there are people who have been inspired by this race. But I did not begin this race to run a symbolic contest. I ran to win," he said. "And what I thought, and this is the honest truth -- I said this to Axelrod -- having won against a very formidable opponent, my main thought was, I'd better win the general election. Because this should be a Democratic year and I beat somebody who would have been a good general-election candidate, so we'd better get our act together now."

But history-in-the-making was always part of the Obama campaign, and in the hours before he was to give his acceptance speech before 80,000 people at Denver's Invesco Field during the Democratic National Convention, even the candidate was overwhelmed by it. It happened in a hotel room during his late-afternoon rehearsal before Axelrod and speechwriter Jon Favreau. When he got to the passage in the speech in which he was going to refer to the historic address the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave 45 years earlier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama suddenly was overcome.

"I started reading it and I got to the section right at the end when it talks about, you know, this young preacher from Georgia. And . . . I had to stop. I choked up," Obama said. He went into the bathroom and closed the door. He returned composed and ready to continue.

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As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. "I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary," he said. "Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn't to say that we underestimated John McCain; it's just that we didn't think that their campaign operation was as good. And one of the hardest things for me, during the primary, was finding differences with Hillary. I mean, a lot of the differences between us, substantively, were pretty modest. . . .

"Going into the general election, I just felt liberated, because there was such a stark contrast between John and myself. . . . They made a strategic decision early on to flip on the Bush tax cuts, and in fact double down on them, which locked them into a domestic agenda that was very difficult to separate from George Bush's domestic agenda. So that just gave us a lot of running room on the issues."

Did he believe that his election marked the end of the Reagan era?

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