Heilemann: Magic, Confidence, and Relief on the Homestretch With Obama

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In Wasilla, 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Presidential campaigns are long, tiring, and often tedious, and this campaign, for all its drama, has been no different. But at the end, all the annoying stuff starts to melt away — for both the candidates and the reporters covering them. The crowds swell, the enthusiasm builds, the adrenaline kicks in, and the sense of impending climax creates an atmosphere that's … well, kinda magical. That feeling hit me on Sunday afternoon, when I arrived at Cleveland's outdoor mall downtown to catch up with the Obama traveling party and jump onboard for the duration. Hopping out of the cab, I see a ginormous mass of people and … hey, what's that? The sound of a guitar, then the voice of Bruce Springsteen belting out "The Promised Land." He segues into "Youngstown," then "Thunder Road," and as the 80,000 people on the mall fall into a reverent hush, I can't help but think that all of us are kinda lucky to be part of this deal.

Maybe Obama feels the same way, because this weekend he's seemed looser than he has been in months. At the end of Springsteen's set, he takes the stage with his family and shares a warm moment with Bruce and Patti and their kids. Springsteen, who hit the trail in 2004 for John Kerry, had joked earlier about being glad to be invited back this year, about not being seen as some kind of jinx. Now Obama adds to the Springsteen-driven levity: When he gets to the part in his speech where he asks the crowd how many of them make more than $250,000 a year — the floor for his proposed tax increases — The One makes a point of telling The Boss to keep his hand down.

Obama has been hammering John McCain for his recent endorsement by Dick Cheney, but today he's especially funny in wielding the cudgel. He points out that Cheney said he was "delighted" to support the GOP nominee, then says with a big grin, "You've never seen Dick Cheney delighted, but he is! It's kinda hard to picture, but it's true!" Obama giggles — and then the clouds open up and a hard rain starts to fall. Obama is unfazed, working the weather into his routine. "Did you notice that it started when I started talking about Dick Cheney?" he jokes. "That's all right. We've been through an eight-year storm, but a new day is dawning. Sunshine is on the way!"

Everyone around Obama says he is indeed feeling good right now — not overconfident, but energized. "He smells the finish line," says his chief strategist, David Axelrod. And you can see it in all the little things he's doing onstage, the looseness, the off-script riffs, the way he tells the crowd not to "fall for the okey doke." At the end, when his exit music comes on — "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" — Obama begins to stroll off stage-right, then stops and does a little dance; I'm not sure, but I think I even glimpse just the tiniest white guy's overbite. Maybe he's been studying Bill Clinton more than he's let on.

On the plane from Cleveland to Obama's evening appearance at the University of Cincinnati, where the atmosphere is even more boisterous, the hack pack talks to each other about the polls, making predictions (quietly, and only at my insistence) about the outcome on Tuesday. Not surprisingly, I can't find anyone who thinks there's any reasonable chance of Obama losing, in spite of the Mason-Dixon numbers that show tightening in a number of the battleground states. Obama's routes to 270 electoral votes are too many, McCain's too few, and the tightening not great enough to suggest an upset in the making.

There's also widespread consensus about how pathetic the last days of the McCain effort have been. Forget about whether the erstwhile maverick will one day regret diving so deeply into the muck and campaigning in a manner so starkly at odds with his declared principles and much of his history. A more salient question is whether he'll look back on having closed the race focused on (a) Joe the Plumber and (b) the claim that Obama is a socialist, shake his head, and say, "What was I thinking?" As I mull this question over with Washington Post sage Dan Balz and Slate seer John Dickerson, an e-mail hits my in-box with prepared remarks for McCain's late-night rally in Miami, which include this sentence: "Senator Obama told Joe the Plumber — or, as they say in little Havana, Pepe el Plomero — that he wants to, quote, 'spread the wealth around.'"

Pepe el Plomero! As I said: pathetic.

McCain, of course, is counting on Pepe to help put him over the top in a lot of places, most importantly Pennsylvania, without which it's virtually impossible to even fantasize about a victory. As Obama speaks in Nipper stadium, I ask adviser Robert Gibbs how confident they are about PA, which Obama hasn't visited in the final days. Gibbs pulls out his BlackBerry and reports that Obama's ground operations in Pennsylvania knocked on more 780,000 doors, and made more than 650,000 phone calls, on Saturday alone. The numbers are unprecedented, staggering even to Gibbs. "Sometimes you just stand back and say, 'Whoa, really?' when you hear what we're doing."

After Obama finishes, we fly to Jacksonville, Florida, where he will begin his final day on the trail. It's not an especially arduous day: just three stops, with the first rally a little after 11 a.m. Which means a call time of 9:30 a.m. for us journos — certainly the latest/laziest start I've ever seen on the last day of a presidential race. Confidence? Complacency? Exhaustion? Let's just say that the Obama people are pretty damn certain that they are working with an electoral-vote floor of more than 270. If you were Obama and that were your worst-case scenario, you'd sleep in, too.