U.S. on the verge of history

Barabak, Reston and Finnegan are Times staff writers.

With two wars and an economic calamity as the backdrop, American voters were poised to make history today, electing either the nation’s first black president or its first female vice president.

Democrat Barack Obama was leading in polls in more than enough states to likely garner the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House, including some that have been Republican for a generation or more.

His travels Monday, shadowed by the death of the grandmother who helped raise him, illustrated Obama’s advantage. He went to three states -- Florida, North Carolina and Virginia -- that President Bush won in both of his elections. The trips underscored how dramatically the lay of the nation’s political landscape has shifted in the last four years.


His last stop, a late-night visit to Manassas in the northern Virginia suburbs, drew a crowd of more than 90,000.

Fighting to catch up, Republican John McCain set off on a dash across seven states, starting in Florida and ending, more than 20 hours later, in his home state of Arizona, where late polls showed a tightening contest. Except for Pennsylvania, which last voted Republican in 1988, McCain spent his day defending states that were in Bush’s column in 2004.

A record 130 million or more Americans are expected to cast ballots in an election that has captivated the country like no campaign in decades, drawing stadium-size crowds and bigger TV ratings than “American Idol” and the World Series.

In California, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with long lines expected in many places.

Both sides were on guard -- their lawyers standing by -- watching for voting irregularities after two straight presidential elections marked by balloting controversies. On Monday, there were scattered reports of dirty tricks, including a leaflet passed around black neighborhoods of Philadelphia that said police would be at the polls to arrest anyone with unpaid parking tickets.

For some, election day has already come and gone. More than 27 million votes have been cast in 30 states, a record turnout driven by the candidates’ exhaustive get-out-the-vote efforts and the prospect of history happening no matter who wins today. A McCain victory would install Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the highest elected U.S. office ever held by a woman. A win by Obama would hurdle the country’s ultimate racial barrier.

Bouncing between states, the presidential hopefuls returned to themes honed to a fine point after two years of campaigning, dozens of debates and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.

“John McCain just doesn’t get it,” Obama told a crowd in Jacksonville, assailing his opponent for opposing tougher regulation of Wall Street and supporting Bush’s economic policies. “They haven’t worked. It’s time for change, and that’s why I’m running for president.”

McCain portrayed Obama as too liberal and inexperienced to reverse the country’s course, at a time when more than 8 in 10 Americans tell pollsters the country is headed the wrong way. The same polls show the economy is by far the top concern of voters, supplanting the war in Iraq, which once figured to be the main issue of the campaign.

“If we’re going to change Washington, we need a president who has actually fought for change and made it happen, even by taking on the leaders of his own party,” McCain told 1,000 supporters in a hangar at the Pittsburgh airport. “He has stayed in the far-left lane of American politics. The next president won’t have time to learn how to change Washington or get used to the office.”

Bush was nowhere to be seen Monday, underscoring the toll his unpopularity has taken on McCain and his fellow Republicans. “We’re realistic about the political environment we’re in,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said of the president’s absence from the campaign trail. Bush’s low profile was deliberate, she said, because Republicans “wanted to make this election about John McCain.”

But Obama brought up the president throughout the day, mocking his rival’s effort to cast himself as a reformer who would bring special interests and free-spending Washington lawmakers to heel. McCain “hasn’t been a maverick,” Obama said in Jacksonville, his day’s first stop. “He’s been a sidekick to George Bush.”

McCain continued to question Obama’s preparedness, citing a prediction from Obama’s running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, about the early days of an Obama presidency.

“He warned that Sen. Obama would be tested with an international crisis within the first six months due to his youth and inexperience, and at the same time Democrats in Congress are talking about deep defense cuts,” McCain told a crowd of about 1,000 in Tampa, Fla. “We have troops fighting in two wars, and the Democrats’ answer is to lower our defenses and put someone in office who our enemies will test? I’ve been tested! I passed that test! Sen. Obama has not.”

Even with the dawn of election day, the two candidates had no plans to let up.

Obama planned a quick hop from Chicago to Indiana before a massive rally tonight along the Chicago lakefront. McCain had events scheduled in Colorado and New Mexico before his return to Phoenix to watch the results and host a party at the resort where he and his wife, Cindy, were wed.

Both sides hoped to divine trends from early returns. If Obama wins Indiana, a state that has not voted GOP in more than 40 years, it could mean a Democratic landslide in the offing. Wins in Virginia, North Carolina or both would also bode well for him. For McCain, a win in Pennsylvania could augur an upset and a better-than-expected night for Republicans.

The first states to finish voting are Indiana, Virginia and a handful of others, followed by North Carolina and Ohio. The TV networks and the Associated Press said that they would not project a winner until one candidate has 270 electoral votes, but news executives said it was unlikely that either nominee would reach that number before the polls close in the West.

An early projection of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide drew protests from Democrats, who said the forecast dampened turnout and cost the party a number of races in California and elsewhere.



Maeve Reston reporting from pittsburgh

Michael Finnegan reporting from jacksonville, fla.