ROBERT SIEGEL, host;
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Barack Obama's path from underdog candidate to president-elect is among the most remarkable and least probable success stories in the history of American politics. Obama's skill as an orator, an organizer, and a politician certainly helped him win. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, he also ran a near flawless campaign, one that always seemed to know how to respond to crisis.
DON GONYEA: A campaign is not a static thing. It's a process, an unpredictable one. Things don't go as planned. So, the real trick is to adapt. Take the Obama campaign. Way back when, he was an underdog taking on front-runner Hillary Clinton. It looked like his big issue would be the war.
President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): Most of you know that I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake.
GONYEA: That was from his very first speech of this campaign in Springfield, Illinois in February of '07. Discontent over the war did help propel Obama's early success in the Iowa caucuses and later, on Super Tuesday. But during the general election, the war actually receded as an issue, replaced by a sudden jolt of dire news from Wall Street.
President-elect OBAMA: We are in the middle - we're in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
GONYEA: Just prior to the economic crisis, the Obama campaign seemed to be slumping. His long-standing lead in the polls had evaporated. His supporters openly worried that potential victory might be slipping away. Then came the failure of the giant-investment-bank Lehman Brothers. Obama had long talked about the need to help working families, but now, the economy became the centerpiece of his campaign. He blamed the policies of President Bush and John McCain.
President-elect OBAMA: They said they wanted to let the market run free, but instead, they let it run wild.
GONYEA: Obama prepared to go hard after McCain on the issue, to highlight the GOP nominee's own past statements about not being an expert on the economy. But then McCain reacted to the crisis on Wall Street this way.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong, but these are very...
President-elect OBAMA: This morning, he said that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong.
(Soundbite of booing)
President-elect OBAMA: Senator McCain, what economy are you talking about?
GONYEA: Then McCain suspended his campaign and called upon Obama to do the same. It was a moment of decision for the Democrat. And he chose to keep campaigning and to keep pressing his attacks on the issue.
President-elect OBAMA: It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once.
GONYEA: Exit polls show that the economy was by far the most significant issue for voters yesterday, giving Obama a big edge. He can credit his message but also the huge organizational and financial advantages he used to keep McCain on the defensive the rest of the way. Over the course of the long campaign, there were other big tests Obama needed to overcome just to make it to the general election, perhaps none bigger than the emergence of a voice from Chicago's south side.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Pastor Emeritus, Trinity United Church of Christ): No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America.
GONYEA: That was Obama's longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The video of the sermon surfaced in March. Suddenly, race became the issue of the campaign. Obama responded with a lengthy speech on race in America. His remarks were widely praised and very personal. The speech included this.
President-elect 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: Finally, another key part of Obama's success has been the securing of prominent endorsements along the way. Senator Edward Kennedy and JFK's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, came on board. And very late in the campaign came this backing from an iconic military figure, former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell.
General COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State): I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason, I'll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.
GONYEA: It was one more piece of reassurance for anyone still wondering about Obama's readiness. Providing an unexpected boost that complemented all of the planning, the organizing, and the adapting that the president-elect's team did along the way. Don Gonyea, NPR News Chicago.