Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Saturday, 1 November 2008

The greatest political show on earth

The most fascinating, most gruelling and most expensive US presidential election campaign for generations is almost over. Whoever wins, says Justin Webb, the contest has left him wondering if any other political show could ever compete.

Three unforgettable moments...

Two men who identified themselves as Vietnam veterans applaud as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain
John McCain enjoys broad support among war veterans

The first with John McCain in a medium-sized hall somewhere in New Hampshire.

He is standing close to me when one of his military veteran buddies, wearing a cap with battle honours neatly stitched on the side, comes up to hug him.

The two elderly men, both tired and bleary-eyed, both their bodies past their best, held each other for a moment with genuine, unaffected love.

Love for who they are and what they represent: generations of Americans who have fought for what they believe is the most honourable nation on earth, a nation that is, at its heart, decent.

They were the country's sword and it was not easy. And because of that, the bond between Mr McCain and the vets is intense.

It defeats on every count the love of the college students for Obama, or the working mums for Hillary Clinton.

John McCain can look stiff and out of place when hugging his running mate.

Wow, he seems to be saying, what is all this about?

He can even seem a tad distant with his wife, but with the vets he melts and it is an affecting spectacle. It is - to use one of the buzzwords of the entire campaign - authentic.

Bowing out

Hillary Clinton pictured with her husband and daughter
Hillary Clinton urged her supporters to back Obama

The second moment that will stay with me forever was the arrival of Hillary Clinton in the packed convention centre in Denver to make the formal declaration that her campaign was over, and Barack Obama had her support.

Dramatic is a weedy word - it was seismic, it was physical.

She came in at the same level at which the slaves and animals would have burst into public sight in a Roman amphitheatre.

There was no room for anyone to breathe, the noise was deafening.

She had to be propelled to the microphone, not because she was unwilling (well, not openly) but because of the crush.

Humanity - sweating people vying for control, for sovereignty, for dominance.

This was about power. It was about having it, and losing it. And as she left the hall, he had it and she had lost.

True revolution

Seeing little black children gathered up into the arms of the secret service, surrounded by people who would die rather than let them die, is to see something that must truly make the racists of Americas past revolve in their graves

The third moment was also in Denver, but was outside the hall as I wandered lost, looking for the portable office we were calling home.

Suddenly, in front of me there is activity. Men in grey suits are talking into their sleeves. Huge, sleek cars are being revved. Motorbikes are getting into formation.

It is not him, it is his family.

As the SUVs pass - including several with the doors and back windows open, men with large automatic weapons looking out with keen hard glares - I catch just a glimpse of the children, of 10-year-old Malia and seven-year-old Sasha peering out. I think their mother was sitting in the middle.

This is the true revolution.

There have been, after all, prominent black politicians for decades now, men and women afforded the full protection and respect that the nation can muster.

But seeing little black children gathered up into the arms of the secret service, surrounded by people who would die rather than let them die, is to see something that must truly make the racists of Americas past revolve in their graves.

L-R: Sasha, Barack, Malia and Michelle Obama
Could the Obamas be the first, black "First Family"?

I do not think Barack Obama will win or lose because of his race, but if he does win, the real moment you will know that America has changed is not when he takes the oath, but when we see pictures of tiny people padding along the White House corridors - a black First Family - representing America and American-ness.

True, Americans tire of their presidents, but in their early years they hold huge sway, they set the style.

Americans will look in the mirror, metaphorically speaking, and black faces will look back.

I wonder if the Obama children have ever asked the question: "Are we nearly there?"

The answer, at last, is: Yes, we are nearly there.

Awaiting the decision

It has been quite a journey and it is worth remembering before being too sure about the result on Tuesday that it has been quite a journey, because of the bumps in the road that have thrown sturdy-looking vehicles off-course, some ending wheels-up in the ditch.

So, although most worldly-wise Republicans expect to lose and most Democrats expect to win, both sides will be short of breath over the next few hours as they hand the thing over to the millions of voters who still, as of this moment, have made no final, irrevocable decision.

At dinner with some mover and shaker Democrats the other day, one anguished guest turned to the others and cried: "Can't it just be over?"

The tension as the votes are counted will be felt the world over.

In spite of all the loose talk of the decline of American influence, this is, once again, the greatest political show on earth.

To have watched it has been an honour.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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