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Gary Younge
'It's a historic event. If they want to be there, they should'

Chicago is bracing itself for a huge and possibly chaotic street party as more than a million people are expected to descend on the city centre tonight in anticipation of a victory for Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.

Obama, who lives in the city, has planned a public party in Grant Park which is in the downtown area. The campaign issued more than 70,000 tickets for the event but they were sold out in a matter of hours. Nonetheless, huge numbers are expected to come into the city anyway, prompting a security clampdown, concern about public safety and some businesses to send employees home early.

"It's going to be surprising," mayor Richard Daley told the Chicago Tribune. "There are going to be a lot of people who want to come down to celebrate. We hope it's a million or more - that's realistic. It's going to be wonderful. Only the private event is ticket[ed]. You can be in the park and around it ... You think I'm nuts? You think I'm not going to invite people down? The mayor's not going to tell anybody not to come to this celebration. It's a historic event. If they want to be there, they should."

Republican contender John McCain is scheduled to hold a far more low-key affair in his home state of Arizona at the Biltmore resort and spa, where he's expected to address roughly 2,000 people.

The scale of Obama's event in Chicago is causing a logistical nightmare for the local law enforcement. Last Friday police superintendent Jody Weis warned: "We can't have foolishness. We can't have mischief."

Last week helicopters flew low over Hutchinson Field, the part of Grant Park where the rally will take place, while police scoured rooftops on downtown buildings. All Chicago police officers have had leave cancelled for the night and firefighters have been asked to have their personal equipment handy at home.

"We expect a good, supportive crowd, and we expect it to be a happy occasion," Obama's campaign manager, David Axelrod, said. "Whatever the result, we don't expect trouble."

Even the coastguard will patrol in Burnham Harbor and on Lake Michigan, which borders the park. With traffic expected to be snarled and parking banned in large areas of the city, the decision to stage an event of this scale has proved controversial. A Chicago Tribune website poll asking whether the rally is a good idea showed the city split, with 52% in favour and 48% opposed.

McCain's operatives have ridiculed Obama's event as typically ostentatious and self-aggrandising. "I don't know if he is planning another Berlin moment, but we're having what will be a great victory night celebration with a lot of supporters," said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers, referring to the throngs that turned up to greet Obama in when he visited Europe in July.

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