"North Carolina, I've got two words for you: six days," Barack Obama told 25,000 fans on Halifax Mall in Raleigh. "In six days, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election; that tries to pit region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat; that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope."
The Democratic presidential hopeful stopped in the capital of North Carolina—a surprisingly battleground state—to give the speech his campaign calls his "closing argument," in which he urged his supporters to vote early and volunteer to push his campaign through its last hours.
"In six days, at this defining moment in history, you can give this country the change we need."
Secret Service marksmen stood on the roof of the state revenue building, while employees in the legislative office building opposite stood at their windows. Another 1,000 people stood outside the mall, listening over loudspeakers. In the crowd, kids sat on their parents' shoulders. One woman held dog-eared copies of Obama's memoirs as her body pressed against the barricades. Another coaxed her toddler to sleep in her arms.
Theresa Watkins, a state government employee from Wake Forest, stood in the crowd with friends and fellow colleagues. "It's a moment in history that I hope we're going to make," she said before Obama took the stage. For her children, and her 18-year-old grandson who plans to join the Navy, she said, "There's got to be a change."
Watkins brought her a 105-year-old great aunt, Juanita Dent Hopkins, to the polling place with her a few days prior. "We were going to let her sit in the car but she said, 'I'm walking in.' She really is in good health and her mind is alert and she knew what was going on."
Think for a moment about what was going on in North Carolina in 1903 and you begin to get a sense of just how historic this moment is. Emancipation came in 1863. African-Americans were nominally granted the right to vote in 1870; women, in 1920. But Hopkins would not have had a genuinely guaranteed opportunity to cast a ballot until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965—when she was 62 years old.
"They let her go to the front of the line," Watkins said. "She said, 'This is a day in history that I hope to be able to see come to fruition, that we'll have a change, and that Obama will be our next president."
Watkins carries with her another generation's history. She was among five teenage girls who desegregated Wake Forest High School 40 years ago—one of only two to graduate. "One of my white friends called me yesterday. He was protective of me, he saw what we were going through. He said, 'Theresa, did you ever think we would see this happen?' And I thought, No. But it's here."
Obama, whose marathon day continued with rallies in Florida, including a late-night appearance with former President Bill Clinton, seized the media opportunity to mock Republican John McCain's childish attacks on his tax plan, a slight change to the stump speech he'd delivered in Ohio two days prior. Immediately after the Raleigh event, blogs and news reports seized upon the comment.
"Because he knows that his economic theories don't work, he's been spending these last few days calling me every name in the book," Obama said. "He's called me a socialist for wanting to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can finally give tax breaks to the middle class.
"I don't know what's next. By the end of the week, he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten."
Laughter and cheers came from the crowd, which prompted him to add with a smile, "I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
Obama made the same crack hours later during a live-via-satellite appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. McCain's campaign responded immediately: "No one cares what Barack Obama does with his toys, but Americans do care that he wants to raise taxes, add a trillion dollars in new spending and redistribute your hard-earned paycheck as he sees fit."
But the Raleigh crowd didn't show up to stand in the cold to witness the spin machine turning. Like Watkins, they were there to witness history.
Mae Mohamed, a real estate agent from Raleigh, said, "He's the only politician I've ever cared about."
The largely African-American crowd seemed to buoy Obama with its energy.
As the candidate criticized McCain's trickle-down economics plan, saying the average CEO would get a $700,000 tax break, someone in the crowd yelled, "That ain't right!"
"Not only is it not right, it ain't right," Obama said to more cheers. He used the refrain—his own version of that oft-mentioned "folksiness"—as he recounted McCain's plans to tax health insurance benefits and privatize Social Security.
(After the event, a woman standing at one of the memorabilia stands crowding Salisbury Street said, "They should have a T-shirt that says 'It ain't right.'")
If Obama manages to win this battleground state, North Carolina's progressive early voting system will be a major reason. Already, 30 percent of the state's 6.2 million registered voters have cast ballots. Obama asked for a show of hands of those who had voted early, and the percentage was much higher. Like other campaign events in the state, the rally ended with a march to the nearest early voting site.
With six days to go—and a more than two-hour wait to hear him speak—some people were weary. Twice, Obama interrupted his speech to request emergency medical technicians attend to people who had fainted in the crowd.
Obama seemed a little weary too. After he shook hands with supporters, he traveled on to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for another speech, the last few minutes of which were televised live at the end of the half-hour infomercial the campaign aired on seven networks Wednesday evening.
"I can take six more days of John McCain's attacks," Obama said, "but this country can't take four more years of the same old politics and the same failed policies."
Wrapping up the speech, he mentioned an e-mail he received from a woman named Robyn whose son had been diagnosed with a heart condition, the treatment for which her insurance company wouldn't cover.
"Robyn wrote, 'I ask only this of you: On the days where you feel so tired you can't think of uttering another word to the people, think of us. When those who oppose you have you down, reach deep and fight back harder.'
"North Carolina, that's what hope is," Obama continued, "that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting around the bend; that insists there are better days ahead."