A worried America chooses its course for change

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In a season of profound political and cultural fissures, the American people stood together at the ballot box Tuesday with a resounding chorus that drowned out their deep differences: Something, they said, has got to give.

And it did - in the form of Barack Obama, the candidate who, from the very beginning, built his platform upon a call for fundamental change.

Republican and Democrat, young and old, black and white, voters divided on issues and candidates emerged from casting ballots and said over and over that change is imperative. The pivotal question - and the political litmus test - was exactly how that change should happen.

For about a third of voters charting the United States' course in the post-Bush era, change itself - and the candidates' ability to effect it - guided their choice the most, national exit polls for The Associated Press and TV networks showed. Among younger voters, Obama was the overwhelming choice.

"I just think our country has never been this bad," Allison Presser, 26, said after voting for the Democratic senator in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

The economy towered above all other issues as a decision-maker for voters, and many said passionately that it must improve. Six of every 10 declared it the most pressing issue in the race - an unsurprising conclusion, given that nine in 10 said the economy is in bad shape. Fears about health-care costs and terrorism followed in short order.

Change always is a big narrative thread when an incumbent president isn't running. But the fundamental and growing unpopularity of George W. Bush pushed the hunger for something new into a bipartisan cry that engulfed even the most dedicated Republicans - and nudged John McCain into making it a central campaign theme relatively late in the game.

Another tick for the change column came in this little number, tucked away in the exit poll results: After a race that at times became obsessed with the tension between fundamental change and job experience, just one in five voters cited experience as their top criterion for choosing a new president. McCain had hammered Obama on his inexperience for months, a line of attack that never faded but was undermined by his choice of newcomer Sarah Palin as his running mate.

"Experience is clearly overrated," said Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. "We are seeing a sea change in what voters are really looking for."

Younger voters, typically more Democratic and less resistant to change, stood squarely behind Obama in his march to a landslide. Of those voting for the first time, the majority of them under 30, two-thirds favored the Illinois senator, according to exit polls.

Consider Curt Babura, a 31-year-old cook in Cleveland who had never voted before. On Tuesday, he did, making his way to the polls on a silver 10-speed bike to back Obama. "I'm really kind of fed up with what's been going on in the country today," Babura said. "I wanted to make a difference this time. I think a lot of younger people are starting to realize the errors of our ways."

Thomas Brogan, a political scientist analyzing exit polls at Albright College in Reading, Pa., said the impact of first-time voters cannot be underestimated.

"If you go back in history to the big changes in American politics, primarily it has come not from people changing their partisan affiliation from Republican to Democrat or Democrat to Republican, but that there has been a new surge of voters coming in," he said.

Whatever the reason, the polls were flooded Tuesday. Dawn to dusk, before work and after, in lines snaking around corners in all parts of the republic, Americans fretting about the direction of their nation startled even jaded poll workers as they streamed into voting booths Tuesday. Contentedness was a rare commodity.

"Something isn't working right out there," said Mike Tanner, 48, who owns a beef jerky business in Dunbarton, N.H.

Since primary season and even before, many Americans in both parties have insisted - and been told by the candidates and the media - that Tuesday's election was the most important of their generation, their century, their lifetime.

That message appeared to play out at polling places, where, after waiting for months, a fractious nation united in unusual electoral fervor to wait some more - in excess of three hours in some areas.

In Hampton Township, outside Pittsburgh in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, a line of three dozen extended out the door of the community center moments after voting began at 7 a.m. Similar scenes unfolded in places from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Dover, Del., to Pontiac, Mich. And at universities in Florida, some voters saw the long lines and gave up.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Patti Negri, overseeing elections at a polling place in Hollywood, Calif., where people were lined up when she arrived at 6 a.m.

The obsession with change - a new course, new direction, new attitude - rang clear in comments from two diametrically opposed voters at the same polling place in downtown Milwaukee.

From Obama voter Jordan Yost, 28, laid off a year ago: "It's time for a change, and McCain wasn't going to provide that."

From McCain supporter Brian Dandoy, 34, a real-estate agent: "I don't think this `change, change, change' that Obama keeps preaching, it's not going to happen the way he is saying."

The focus on change comes after a campaign that brought a useful national chestnut back into play: the American vision of the future, which as a concept was a driving political force throughout much of the country's history. But it faded along with optimism during the Vietnam War and has largely stayed that way except for a brief "Morning in America" interlude during the Reagan years.

"I really haven't felt this energy in an election since John Kennedy," said lawyer and lifelong Democrat Alejandro Soto, 64, of San Antonio.

The supremacy of change as a political theme ended up playing particularly well in rust-belt swing states with older economies like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which went Obama's way after being hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. "Obama tapped into the need for change before people really realized they had it," Brogan said.

What else was important to Americans voting for president on Tuesday? Race, of course; virtually all blacks interviewed after leaving the polls said they had voted for Obama as the nation's first black chief executive. Presidential appointments to the Supreme Court were important for six in 10 voters, the exit polls showed. And affordable health care, an increasingly intense focus as the baby boomers age, worried two-thirds of voters, which drew 60 percent of them to Barack Obama.

Two words were conspicuously absent from voters' mouths: George and Bush. The deeply unpopular leader dubbed by Jon Stewart "Still-President Bush" has laid low for weeks after being all but disowned by McCain, his own party's candidate.

"I think the president is getting blamed for an awful lot of things that really aren't his fault," said Ron Kjellsen, 72, a McCain voter in Watertown, S.D. He added: "Not that he's the most competent president we've ever had."

For months, pundits have argued about the nature of this presidential race: Is it about issues or personalities, about values or party politics? To look at the dozens of voters who offered their opinions on Tuesday, one sad subject kept re-emerging: Something's just not right.

"With the stock market in the tank, with all the things happening, we need a new leader," said Katie Schmelzer, 32, of Oxford, Iowa.

Or listen to Joann Scherk, voting in Waterbury, Vt., and, seemingly, looking to find a hero. "It's gotten to the point where you don't really vote for someone as much as you vote against someone else," she said. "I wish it wasn't that way."

And who did Scherk vote for - or, at least, against? Asked, she just wouldn't say.