When President-elect Barack Obama met an exultant crowd of some 240,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, the victor's voice was clear but solemn: "Change has come to America."
Indeed, America had changed since a January night 10 months earlier when an overjoyed Obama strained to shout above the 3,200 supporters gathered in downtown Des Moines to celebrate the candidate's surprise victory in the Iowa state caucuses. With a hoarse voice and a huge smile, Obama told the crowd: "They said this day would never come."
Across town, a jubilant Mike Huckabee had similar words for Republicans: The former Arkansas governor unexpectedly won the GOP contest in Iowa despite Republican Mitt Romney outspending the candidate nearly 15 to 1. Huckabee told a rowdy crowd they proved that "people are more important than the purse."
The unfolding year would prove that the purse still matters, with Obama forgoing federal campaign financing and raising a record-shattering $600 million during the course of his presidential bid.
The year would also prove that another dynamic still matters in presidential politics: religion. Four years after Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean argued that candidates shouldn't discuss "guns, God, and gays," Democrats reversed course. Obama openly emphasized Christian faith and mounted an aggressive campaign to reach religious voters, including evangelicals once considered the domain of the Republican Party. Republicans weren't ceding religious ground, but they offered a slate of candidates that met mixed success, as evangelicals struggled to settle on a candidate to support.
Iowans were still dismantling Christmas decorations when voters trudged to the polls on Jan. 3 for the nation's first nominating contest in the presidential race. The caucuses came two weeks earlier than usual when a handful of states moved up their primaries to gain more prominence in the nominating process.
After months of cultivating an aura of inevitability for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., finished third: She trailed Obama and former senator John Edwards, who finished in second place.
The Iowa loss wounded Clinton, and the famously tough senator showed it: On the eve of the New Hampshire primary a week later, Clinton choked up during a campaign appearance in the state. New Hampshire voters were sympathetic: Clinton beat Obama by 3 points and found herself back in the game.
Back in Iowa, Huckabee was also an unlikely winner. If the Republican had a secret weapon in the Hawkeye State, it was the evangelicals who comprised nearly 60 percent of voter turnout. The Baptist minister, who dismissed open ridicule over Christian beliefs like creationism, embraced social conservatism and ran ads in Iowa that called him "a Christian leader." Huckabee pleased Iowa evangelicals but didn't persuade national evangelical leaders, despite a surge of momentum going into the first primary.
A few days later, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., celebrated a close victory over Romney in New Hampshire. All eyes turned to South Carolina, where Huckabee hung his hopes for remaining viable. McCain won by 3 points in the state where he lost an acrimonious primary battle eight years earlier.
Obama beat Clinton by nearly 20 points in South Carolina, and Edwards trailed a distant third. While press outlets criticized Republicans for emphasizing Christianity, few stirred over Obama's similar strategy in the South: One brochure called the Democrat "a committed Christian" who is "called to Christ." Field staff in South Carolina and around the country recruited "church captains" to represent the campaign to local congregations.
By the end of January, the field narrowed: Unable to crack the race between Clinton and Obama, Edwards dropped out. Out as well: Rudy Giuliani, a former front-runner who gained an endorsement from Pat Robertson but couldn't overcome his pro-abortion stance in a pro-life party.
February brought Super Tuesday and a tightened Democratic race: Obama won more states than Clinton, but Clinton won large states with dozens of delegates. McCain dominated Republican contests, and Romney dropped out. Once a front-runner, Romney faced criticism over his Mormonism and his former pro-abortion views, but a failure to connect with voters may have doomed his candidacy. Former senator Fred Thompson also withdrew after a lackluster campaign failed to deliver the red meat it promised.
As McCain gained ground, Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson endorsed Huckabee, but the support came too late for the Arkansas Republican. After the primaries on March 4, McCain gained enough delegates to clinch the nomination, and Huckabee withdrew.
McCain, who once called evangelical leaders "agents of intolerance," said he "wasn't angry anymore," but his outreach to skeptical evangelicals wasn't aggressive. Instead, McCain plotted a general election strategy for wooing independent voters while Clinton and Obama battled on for the Democratic nomination.
As Obama courted religious voters, the senator met a stumbling block from his own circle: In March, newscasts and YouTube clips circulated the incendiary preaching of Jeremiah Wright, the retiring pastor of Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC). Clips of Wright's preaching included him asking God to damn America, which he referred to as the "U.S. of KKK-A."
Obama initially refused to denounce Wright, but as the controversy worsened, Obama called Wright's remarks "wrong and divisive" and delivered a well-received speech on race that drew attention away from his pastor's racist views. In May, when Catholic priest Michael Pfleger delivered a sermon at Trinity UCC that mocked Hillary Clinton, Obama withdrew his membership from the church.
In the following weeks, the Clinton and McCain camps made similar decisions: Despite Obama's 20-year association with Wright and his church, both campaigns decided not to emphasize the issue. Clinton emphasized her experience and former President Bill Clinton emphasized his wife's qualifications.
By early June, superdelegates narrowly delivered the Democratic nomination to Obama, and Clinton's long battle for the presidency ended. Obama spoke of his win in near-messianic terms: "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
The summer passed quickly, with Obama and McCain preparing for their parties' conventions and poring over lists of vice presidential candidates. In late August, Obama and McCain appeared at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California for a presidential forum.
Though McCain once admitted he's uncomfortable talking about his faith, the candidate fared better than Obama. He delivered succinct answers to questions like, "When do a baby's human rights begin?" McCain's answer: "At conception." Obama offered more meandering responses, defending his support for legalized abortion and saying the question was "above my pay grade."
Evangelical support for McCain was rising, but Obama was making inroads with religious voters as well: At its convention in Denver, the Democratic Party touted a revised platform aimed at reducing abortions while keeping the procedure legal. Evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Joel Hunter praised the new language they helped craft, but most evangelicals remained skeptical of a platform that "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade." Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., accepted the vice presidential nomination in Denver, and Obama accepted the presidential nomination in front of 80,000 people at an elaborate event at Invesco Field.
The next morning, McCain riveted the country with his surprise vice presidential pick: Alaska governor Sarah Palin. While reporters asked each other how to pronounce "Palin," evangelical leaders declared the pick a grand slam. At the Republican convention in Minneapolis, Christians chanted Palin's name and praised her conservative credentials: The pro-life evangelical and mother of five boasted a record of reforming state government in Alaska.
The convention soon turned stormy: Hurricane Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast, postponing convention events, and news broke that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. Palin declared her family's support of Bristol's plans to keep her baby and marry the father. Republicans hailed Palin's convention speech to a television audience that rivaled Obama's, and McCain reached out to voters disgruntled with the Republican Party.
But a handful of prominent conservatives soon grew disgruntled with McCain while Palin floundered in broadcast interviews. As the media heaped scorn on Palin, supporters turned out by the thousands to wait for hours to see the candidate at campaign stops around the country.
By late September, an unexpected storm upstaged the candidates: The economy tanked, and with it McCain's campaign. After threatening to cancel the first presidential debate and helping passage of an unpopular congressional bailout for banks, McCain's numbers dropped. Voters went to the polls with the economy on their minds, and Obama easily won.
As he stepped onto the stage at Grant Park, Obama's enthusiasm seemed tempered by the economic crisis gripping the nation, and he hedged the sweeping promises he once made: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."