Republicans, in choosing Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin, paired a man of deep experience, compelling background and a stubborn independent streak with the first woman ever on a GOP ticket.
It's a singular moment. So why all the long faces?
Americans go into the presidential, congressional and governors' elections Tuesday in a state of anxiety about the future that is also well beyond the norm.
It's the second presidential election in a row to be contested in the crucible of two wars. It comes with the nation's financial bastions in crisis, the stock market in convulsions and government exposing taxpayers to vast new quantities of public debt in an effort to restore equilibrium to the economy. None of this stands still for the next president, who will be the nation's crisis manager from Day One.
His performance in office will inevitably depend in large measure on the makeup of Congress, another drama for voters to settle on Election Day.
In the House, with all 435 seats to be filled, Democrats go into the election with a 37-seat advantage and prospects for padding their majority. Normally, a party's dramatic gains in one election are tempered in the next, but these are not normal times. Of the 60 or so House races that are considered truly competitive, the great majority are Republican-theirs to defend or lose.
Stakes are at least as high in the Senate, where Democrats have a mere two-seat edge and are fighting to pick up six or more. Thirty-five Senate seats will be settled in the election. There are also 11 races for governor.
If trends hold, a President McCain would be quickly tested on his reputation for working with the other side during his quarter-century in Congress. Without that skill, he would be hard-pressed to get much done. A President Obama, too, would need to bridge divides-not only between parties but also within his own-in asking Congress to make his ambitious agenda law.
In the Senate for less than four years, Obama was a state lawmaker in Illinois when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Obama's opposition to the Iraq war from the beginning set him apart from his main primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. His pledge to withdraw combat troops in 16 months distinguishes him now from McCain, who opposes any timetable and asserts the troops should come out as conditions merit.
Both men have proposed far-ranging and expensive plans to broaden health coverage. McCain proposes a tax credit and increased competition. Obama would mandate coverage for all children, require larger companies to contribute to insurance costs and offer various incentives to make insurance more affordable. Both pledge middle-class tax cuts while Obama alone would raise taxes on wealthier Americans.
Obama, 47, came to national attention with his speech to the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, a barn-burner that summoned Americans to look beyond the factional politics of red states and blue states. It was a pitch he polished through the long slog of the primaries, when he proved his draw as a money-raising champion. The Democrat has shattered records for money in politics, raising $150 million in September alone and more than $600 million in the campaign.
McCain, 72, brought to the campaign a long-established presence as a fighter against pork-barrel spending, a senator willing to buck his own party and a foreign-policy maven who stood for a concerted war effort in Iraq when that position was nearly political poison. McCain once rarely talked about his trials and torture over more than five years of brutal captivity in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam war. In this campaign, he and his supporters have talked about it often, as testament to the resolute nature he would bring to the presidency.