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Political history was made last night in Denver: a major political party nominated a black man to be president of the United States. Barack Obama will accept that nomination tonight. He'll do that outdoors before an audience of 75,000 people. Millions more will watch on television.
NPR's Don Gonyea is part of our team of reporters who've been following the campaign since it began. Here now, he retraces some of the steps that brought the 47-year-old senator from Illinois to this moment.
DON GONYEA: The road that ends tonight in the Denver Broncos football stadium has been a long one. Yesterday, Senator Obama wrapped up a pre-convention tour with a stop in Billings, Montana. And there, he revisited an issue that has helped propel his campaign along that long road: his opposition to the Iraq War. He spoke of the drain the war has been on the budget and how it's costing the U.S. billions every month.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): While Iraq has a $79 billion surplus from oil revenues, that is shameful. And so we've got the money to make sure that we take care of our veterans. We've got the money to make sure that college is affordable. We've got the money to provide early childhood education.
GONYEA: Among many hardcore Democrats, Obama's opposition to the war gave him an edge over Hillary Clinton. But his campaign succeeded for reasons well beyond that war. He built an impressive organization with a focus on grassroots. Armies of foot soldiers campaigned in every single primary and caucus state. And Obama reached out to people new to the political process.
This is from a campaign stop prior to January's Iowa caucuses.
Sen. OBAMA: To all the young people out here today, the cynics said that you won't turn out, that despite all the sweat and tears that you have put into this campaign, that you will somehow forget to show up.
GONYEA: And Obama inspired crowds with his charismatic presence on the stump, crowds that seemed to just keep getting bigger and bigger. On January 3rd of this year, Iowa gave him a victory that in advance seemed both unlikely and improbable. The senator spoke in Des Moines that night, an African-American candidate in a state with very few minorities, handing Hillary Clinton a major setback in the very first contest.
Sen. OBAMA: Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope.
GONYEA: But there were bumps in the road, and they came up quickly. Five days later, Senator Clinton won New Hampshire, and the battle went on. Obama rebounded with a string of victories, starting with South Carolina. For a frustrated Clinton campaign, the best hope suddenly seemed to be some revelation about Obama, some outside event that might change the dynamic of the race.
A former pastor of Senator Obama's almost provided that.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Former Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): Not God bless America, God damn America.
GONYEA: That's the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Senator Obama responded with a lengthy and personal speech about race in America, delivered at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March.
Sen. OBAMA: Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive -divisive at a time when we need unity. Racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.
GONYEA: In subsequent days and weeks, Senator Obama issued an even stronger condemnation of Reverend Wright. He survived the controversy and a later surge by Senator Clinton. But he fight lasted the entire primary season. Senator Obama finally declared victory on June 3rd at a huge rally in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Sen. OBAMA: Tonight, I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America.
GONYEA: At that moment, Obama held a solid lead over Republican John McCain in polls. Since then, though, the race has become extremely tight. In tonight's speech, Obama faces new challenges. He must live up to the high expectations set by his own earlier speeches. He must provide real specifics as to how he'll make American lives better, and he must answer concerns polls show Americans still have as to whether this charismatic senator that they'd barely heard of a few years ago is ready to be president.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Denver.