It was a race so long that John McCain seemed to run it twice, once as the Republican front-runner who fell, then as an insurgent on a shoestring. Or, as Barack Obama often described, an odyssey of two years: “There are babies who've been born and are now walking and talking since we started this campaign.” But even that doesn't fully capture the sprawling race, down now to a choice between Obama, a Democrat bidding to become the first black commander in chief, and John McCain, a Republican in search of one final comeback.
1. The Republicans
Ten men vying to be the Republican nominee took the stage on May 3, 2007, for the first Republican presidential primary debate. Joining the eventual nominee, John McCain, were Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
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McCain finished a close fourth place in the Iowa caucuses in January, behind Huckabee, Romney and Thompson. On Feb. 5, McCain, coming off a win in Florida the week before, won nine of the 21 GOP Super Tuesday contests, including California, putting him on course to clinch the nomination.
McCain sewed up the nomination March 4 after winning Texas and Ohio.
2. The Democrats
From the start, the Democratic race had room only for two. “I'm in it to win it,” former first lady Hillary Clinton had said in entering the campaign. So, of course, was Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as he joined her in a race no Founding Father could have imagined – a black man against a woman, a presidential nomination the prize.
Early on, the Democratic field also included Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Obama notched the first victory in the nominating season, winning the Iowa caucuses in decisive fashion on an outpouring of support from first-time caucusgoers. The victory stamps the freshman Illinois senator a contender against the better-known Clinton.
On Super Tuesday, Obama won 14 of 24 states. The show of strength, including his victory in all but one caucus state and battleground Missouri, kept him in the race with Clinton, who won the day's more populous states.
Primaries in Kentucky and Oregon in May gave Obama a majority of the national convention delegates elected by voters, although he didn't secure a majority of unpledged delegates, called superdelegates, until June. By June 3, he'd clinched the total number of national convention delegates as undecided superdelegates committed in the wake of the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota.
3. Down to two
Obama and McCain shake hands at their debate in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 15. The two candidates debated each other three times.
4. Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin had her national debut at the GOP National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. on Sept. 3. McCain surprised some in the political establishment a week earlier by naming the Alaska governor as his running mate. His choice, though, is applauded by the GOP rank-and-file.
5. Cindy McCain
The candidate's wife – a tireless presence on the trail, usually accompanying her husband – talked to supporters in Concord on Oct. 18.
6. Michelle Obama
The candidate's wife campaigns in Minnesota on Oct. 13. Unlike Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama has generally campaigned on her own and rarely dovetailed with her husband on the trail.
7. Joe Biden
Joe Biden campaigned at UNC Charlotte on Oct. 23. Obama announced his pick of the Delaware senator, a Washington veteran and foreign policy leader, in a text message to supporters a day before the Democratic National Convention in late August.
8. Bill and Hillary Clinton
One enduring image of the campaign will be former President Clinton, campaigning for his wife, former first lady Hillary Clinton, during the primary season but talking, talking, talking about himself. He used the word “I” 94 times in one 10 minute stretch in Iowa, and mentioned her only seven.
Months later, after her defeat to Obama, Hillary Clinton said proudly that she and her legions of supporters had been able to put “about 18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling that has kept women from advancing to the White House.
9. Mike Huckabee
The former Arkansas governor, who often brought his bass guitar with him on the trail, bowed to “the inevitable” and dropped out of the Republican presidential race in March.
10. Joe the Plumber
During the final presidential debate, John McCain introduced America to “Joe the Plumber.” Joe, whose real name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, had challenged Obama over his tax plans. By the morning after the debate, Joe was a media star. He says he's considering writing a book or going into politics.
11. The Edwards affair
Former Sen. John Edwards confessed in August to an extramarital affair with a woman hired to make videos for his presidential run. “I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic,” he explained.
12. Rudy Giuliani
The former New York mayor had one of the biggest punch lines at the GOP convention. He told the convention, “You have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a – community organizer.” He paused and then said, “What?” as if to express befuddlement at that job title.
13. Convention bounce
McCain capped the convention, delayed in its start by Hurricane Gustav, with an appeal to independent voters and an emphasis on his 40 years of national service. “Stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We're Americans, and we never give up.” He left the convention with a lead over Obama.
14. The world takes notice
Interest in the presidential campaign appeared exceptionally high across the globe. More than 200,000 people turned out to attend an Obama speech in Berlin in July, part of a trip abroad to bolster his foreign policy credentials.
15. A crowd in Charlotte
Obama's U.S. crowds also were large. At a rally Sept. 21 in Charlotte, for example, he drew an estimated 20,000 people.
16. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright
In mid-March, Obama was thrown on the defensive when it was disclosed that his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had accused the United States of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism. His candidacy in peril, Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia that was an appeal to overcome racism and the black anger and white resentment it spawns. He criticized Wright, yet said, “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.” Later, after Wright resurfaced, Obama decided he could, after all, disown him.