The best way to experience an Obama rally is to listen to him while watching the audience. Barack Obama is, of course, impressive. His speeches, like his suits, are meticulously measured. In this final week they are tailored to consolidate rather than convince. Though he is reed-thin, he can fill an auditorium, stadium or park with his presence as well as with people. With a big smile full of white teeth, he looks like the most all-American candidate the Republican party has had the misfortune to attempt to dismiss as non-American and demonise as anti-American.
But the audience is something else. There are old black ladies dressed for church, whose hands palm up as if to pat the sky while their heads bow down, resonating points Obama makes, with hats perched on buns of salt-and-pepper hair. When he makes points that resonates their heads go down like as their hands go up, palms open, as though they are trying to pat the sky.
There are young white kids, their universities emblazoned on their hoodies, who roll their lower arms in big circles from the elbow as though showing appreciation at a football game. There are old white veterans who occasionally nod but otherwise stay seated while others rise. And there are black children held high on parents' shoulders so they can capture a moment they do not yet fully understand.
The energy is contagious. Bettie Bell, 87, was swaying to Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, And Delivered" as she tells me she "never thought I'd see this day" when a black man might be president. Bell grew up in Mississippi and moved to Ohio when she was 20. "We couldn't vote back then. But this time I voted already ... The Bible says, 'One day a small nation will rise up.' Well it's our time and it feels wonderful."
The numbers are staggering. A capacity crowd of 4,900 in the civic centre in Canton, Ohio; 9,000 outside in the teaming rain in Chester, Pennsylvania; 35,000 at 11pm in Kissimmee, Florida.
To hear supporters talk, you would think they have come not out of volition, but compulsion. "I just had to be here," says Jeannie, who drove from West Palm Beach to Kissimmee to see Obama. "I can hardly believe I've come this far to go to a rally in the middle of the night. But it's history. I had to see it for myself at least once."
As the week drew to a close, the mood was torn between anticipation and anxiety. On the one hand, supporters feel as though they are on the verge of a great historical moment. On the other, they resist the complacency that could deny it to them. For the last 20 months they have been told to believe. With 72 hours to go, they dare not believe too much.
"After the last two times I just don't want to jinx it," says Susan Aylward, from Akron, Ohio. "Everything looks good. But I won't believe it until it actually happens."
In the parts of the country where the election will be decided, they've counted chickens before, and have no intention of doing it again. Chris Magoon, a field organiser in Canton, told people to "put the polls away" and reminded them that Ohio was lost in 2004 by just nine votes per precinct. When the pastor who delivered the convocation in Chester, Pennsylvania, the same morning said: "Lead us not into temptation," the sin he was referring to was hubris.
There is also the pervasive fear that Obama might be assassinated. Nobody says it out loud, but nobody needs to. The pastor who blessed the Chester rally called for God to "deliver us from evil that will harm any candidate". In Canton the clergyman looked for God to "Love him, carry him and keep him".
Then there are worries that the election will be stolen. The pastor in Canton prayed that "every voting machine will work correctly". Jeannie in Kissimmee shrugged at what surprises election day might bring. "It's Florida," she says. "You just never know."
And finally there is mistrust of polls that may mask racial prejudice. Rosa Scott of Canton, who is in her 70s, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and remembers the bus boycott lead by Martin Luther King. "Down there they let you know if they didn't like you. But here they're more sneaky with it."
Obama opened the last full week of campaigning in Ohio with his closing argument. It is a hybrid of the unifying themes that first gained him national attention - reassurance that his taxation policy will only affect the very wealthy, and his trademark call for change. He rose to prominence in 2004 because of his opposition to the war. But as he heads to the finish line four years later Iraq barely gets a mention.
The question in this election, he says, is not: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" - referring to Ronald Reagan's now famous jibe at the Carter years. "We already know the answer to that. Will this country be better off four years from now?"
In a populist turn, he asks the audience: "How many of you earn less than $250,000 a year?" When they all put up their hands he continues, "Well, my tax policy won't cost you a dime."
Ridiculing McCain's claim that his "desire to spread the wealth" makes him a socialist, he said: "Lately, they've been calling me a socialist and they found evidence that when I was in kindergarten I used to share my toys, and in the fourth grade I split my peanut butter sandwich and they said look, he's a redistributionist ... There's nothing wrong with looking out for other people." The Florida crowd starts a chant of "O-bama".
As he flies around the country, local and national events provide him with a strong tailwind. On the day he came to Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's front page was about Friday's collapse of Ohio's largest bank, National City. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer showcased the conviction of Alaska's Republican senator, Ted Stevens, on six counts of ethics violations, bringing the possibility of a filibuster-proof Senate one vote closer.
As he took to the stage in Kissimmee, the Orlando Sentinel reported that polling hours had been extended to cater for the unprecedented surge in early voting, with registered Democrats overrepresented and African Americans punching almost twice their demographic weight at the booths.
For all the caveats, caution, denial and downplay, Obama's itinerary explains why he has every reason to be confident. With the exception of Pennsylvania, Obama has spent the last week travelling in states George Bush won in 2004. He needs 18 more electoral college votes than Kerry to win.
He hasn't been behind in a poll in Iowa (seven votes) since he accepted the nomination, nor in New Mexico (five) in seven weeks. He has led in Virginia (13) and Colorado (nine) for the past month, and Florida (27), Ohio (20) and Nevada (five) for at least the last week. He is mounting challenges in North Carolina and Missouri.
He only needs one or two of these polls to be right to win. His team expect the race to tighten in these final days. But for him to lose, there would have to be a full-scale, last-minute reversal.
With Bill Clinton by his side in Florida for the first time, the Democratic party's generational baton-change is almost complete. Leaving the stadium in the dead of night, the weight of expectation is evident in the T-shirts on sale. Some bear a socialist-realist print of Obama's face with a single word like Hope, Progress, Believe or Change. One shows Obama and Martin Luther King with the message: "Dreams we can believe in". Another has him dressed like a secret service agent and "Mission Possible".Yet another in Spanish says: "Nosotros creemos en el cambio" (We believe in change).
With only three days left to sell, hawkers scour the crowd for people who might yet buy. They've bought his message. But will they wear it? It's five to midnight. He's closed his arguments. Now he has to close the deal.
January 3: Iowa Democrat caucuses
Barack Obama wins Iowa caucuses after deploying large group of paid field staff who organise supporters, ensuring a big turnout. His victory proves his viability, especially among wary African-American voters, and anoints him the early front-runner.
January 7: Clinton cries in New Hampshire
The former first lady is fighting for survival when one voter's innocuous question about her appearance — how do you manage? — leads to tears
before the TV cameras. What initially looked like a gaffe became the humanising moment she needed, and led to a win in New Hampshire.
March 4: McCain wins Republican nomination
Given up for dead in 2007, McCain surges to victory in four states and secures the Republican nomination He promises to give voters "a contest of ideas" rather than "an uncivil brawl" but he accepts George Bush's endorsement.
January 28: Kennedy backs Obama
Obama is often compared to John F Kennedy— both men sought the presidency as young, untested senators with a gift for oratory. He wins the powerful family's support when the late president's brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, and daughter, Caroline, declared him the heir to JFK's legacy.
February 29: The 3am phone call advert
The Clinton team, realising Obama is in for the long haul, tries to make voters fear his inexperience. Clinton's now-classic advert tried to make voters fear his inexperience, featuring the White House phone ringing in the dead of night, inspires numerous parodies — and more than a few stump speeches from John McCain.
April 28: The Rev Wright speaks
Obama faces tricky questions about his outspoken former pastor, whose sermons railing against US policies hurt his campaign with white voters. The Rev Wright responds with a combative speech accusing Obama of disowning him "because he's a politician".
May 6: Clinton's last stand
With her early advantage gone and her money running out, Clinton gambles all on winning Indiana and North Carolina. A narrow victory in the first and a loss in the second means the primary contest is all but over — but Hillary will not concede.
June 3: Obama clinches the nomination
It comes down to the very last states and the endorsements of super-delegates, put Obama over the victory line — and gives his wife their famous celebratory fist bump. Clinton does not admit defeat until days later,
leaving open wounds in the Democratic party.
August 28: Obama's acceptance speech
Republicans mock the Greek columns, the A-list celebrities, and the adoring throngs at Denver's Invesco Field. But when Obama emerges to give the first open-air nomination speech since Kennedy, even his critics agree it is a
political masterstroke, and Obama has all the momentum until ...
September 3: Meet Sarah Palin
The young governor of Alaska is the surprise choice for McCain's running mate. The choice dominates the news cycle and the Republicans find their new heroine after a convention speech combining spirited attacks with folksy appeals to God and country.
September 14: It's the economy, stupid
Wall Street investment banks Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers crumble under the weight of bad mortgage-related securities, the latest and biggest highprofile failures of the financial services industry. Obama takes advantage of American uneasiness, linking McCain to Bush and thus the crisis on Wall Street.
September 17: Palin falters
CBS news anchor Katie Couric's interviews with Palin on the law, economy and foreign affairs mark a turning point. Her cringe-inducing performance — she can only name one Supreme Court decision she disagrees with, the landmark abortion case, Roe v Wade — ignites a backlash among conservatives that persists throughout the election.
September 24: Hold the campaign
As Congress and the White House discuss the bail-out of the financial system, McCain says he will "suspend" his campaign and returns to Washington to help. He calls for a delay in the presidential debate. Obama calls his bluff, saying a president should be able to deal with two tough tasks at once. McCain's surrogates continue to attack Obama and campaign ads still run. The debate goes ahead as planned.
September 26: Face to Face I
The first of the three debates gives voters a side-by-side comparison of the 47-year-old gym buff and the 72-year-old former prisoner of war. In a sometimes caustic forum, Obama tries to tie McCain to Bush and McCain tries to paint Obama as dangerously inexperienced. Polls show a win for Obama.
October 2: Face to Face II
Vice-presidential debate. Sarah Palin holds her nerve against Joe Biden, delivering mostly coherent answers, surpassing expectations after the Couric interview and reviving Republican enthusiasm for her candidacy.
October 12: Enter Joe the plumber
Ohio labourer emerges as mascot for McCain's effort to tar Obama as a tax-and-spend socialist after he quizzes the Democratic candidate on the campaign trail. McCain claims that the case of Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher proves Obama's policies will hurt the little guy. It turns out that he would actually be better off under Obama's tax proposals, but that does not stop Republicans from trotting him out at rallies.
October 19: Powell's sucker punch
Colin Powell, George Bush's former secretary of state and one of the most powerful African Americans in US history, broke with the Republican party, saying Obama "demonstrated the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem solving that I think we need in this country". Some McCain supporters, notably radio host Rush Limbaugh, contend Powell made the pick because Obama is black.
October 29: Obama — The Movie
Obama runs a 30-minute TV ad on most major US television networks, at a cost of $1m per channel. The spot features the candidate describing his policies, and several down-and-out swing-state Americans explaining how hard they have it. The implication: If you are down on your luck, an Obama victory will improve your lot — especially if you live in Missouri, New Mexico
Big Dog weighs in
Days before the election, Bill Clinton holds a joint rally in Florida with Obama. Relations between the two had reportedly been testy after the bitter primaries battle, but they were all smiles and effusive praise on the night.