On stage, Mr. McCain, of Arizona, was trying to show concern for the prospect of hardship but also optimism about the country’s resilience.
“The fundamentals of the economy are strong,” he said.
A thousand miles away, at Senator Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, the aides who monitored Mr. McCain’s every utterance knew immediately that they had just heard a potential turning point in a race that seemed to be tightening. They rushed out to tell Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s communications director, what Mr. McCain, the Republican candidate, had just said, knowing that his words could be used to portray him as out of touch.
“Shut up!” Mr. Pfeiffer said incredulously. “He said what?” Mr. Obama, who had just arrived at a rally in Colorado, hastily inserted the comments into his speech. And by nightfall, the Obama campaign had produced an advertisement that included video of Mr. McCain making the statement that would shadow him for the rest of the campaign.
At the McCain campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., at almost the same moment that morning, Mr. McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, looked stricken when his war room alerted him to the comment. Within 30 minutes, he was headed for a flight to Florida to join Mr. McCain as they began a frantic and ultimately unsuccessful effort to recover.
Mr. McCain’s inartful phrase about the economy that day, and the responses of the two campaigns, fundamentally altered the dynamic of the race. But the episode also highlighted a deeper difference: the McCain campaign team often seemed to make missteps and lurch from moment to moment in search of a consistent strategy and message, while the disciplined and nimble Obama team marched through a presidential contest of historic intensity learning to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and making remarkably few stumbles.
The story of Mr. Obama’s journey to the pinnacle of American politics is the story of a campaign that was, even in the view of many rivals, almost flawless. But Mr. Obama and his aides believed from the outset that it would have to be nothing less than that if he was to overcome obstacles that sometimes in the drama of the year became easy to forget: that this was a black man with an unusual name and exotic past, someone dogged by a stubborn (and inaccurate) belief among some voters that he is a Muslim, who began plotting his presidential run less than two years after moving from the Illinois Legislature to the United States Senate.
As Mr.Obama reminded Americans on Tuesday night in his victory speech, “I was never the likeliest candidate for the office.”
The two captains of his effort, the disheveled David Axelrod, his close friend and political strategist, and the meticulous David Plouffe, the campaign manager, had never been on a team that had won a presidential nomination, much less a general election.
While two of the Democratic primary rivals — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards of North Carolina — as well as his eventual Republican opponent, Mr. McCain, had spent years planning for this race, Mr. Obama had no organization and no clear idea of what he was getting into.
He was so unfamiliar with the requirements of a national campaign that his aides drafted a set of mock schedules to show him the states where he would have to invest a lot of time. When Mr. Obama, the father of two young girls, asked if he could go home on weekends, his aides replied: Not if you want to win.
Yet after a somewhat lackluster start — it is hard now to appreciate how formidable a front-runner Mrs. Clinton appeared to be just a year ago — Mr. Obama and his team delivered. They developed a strategy to secure the nomination, and stuck with it even after setbacks.
They used the newest technology and old-fashioned organizing skills to harness the grass-roots enthusiasm his candidacy generated to help raise record sums of money and build a volunteer army to turn out the vote. They carefully researched how to handle the issue of race, and worked at making voters comfortable with the idea of putting a black family in the White House.
They rolled the dice at times, like when Mr. Obama confronted his association with his fiery former pastor by delivering a major speech on race. And they played it safe when they could, as in the selection of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as his running mate.
Taking the tightly run Bush 2004 campaign as a model, Mr. Obama’s campaign did not waver from its core theme of change. It tolerated no drama and did not endure a single staff shakeup, in contrast to the turmoil that marked the Clinton and McCain campaigns. Mr. Obama kept himself, and his team, on an even keel — a character trait that paid immense dividends in the closing stages, when his understated approach to the economic crisis came off to many voters as steady leadership.
“It was perfectly run; it made few mistakes,” Mr. Schmidt, Mr. McCain’s strategist, said of the Obama campaign. “And it took full advantage of an environment where the American people had turned on the incumbent president of the Republican Party and badly wanted change.”Mr. Obama, Mr. Schmidt continued, “was a once-in-a-generation orator. A good debater. And an eloquent message. He was the beneficiary of favorable media coverage. Ice-cold disciplined about the execution of his campaign message. He was an extremely formidable candidate.”