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Chicago's party is giddy, but not the same as 2008

  • Article by: CARLA MARINUCCI
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • November 7, 2012 - 1:02 AM

CHICAGO -- It was "Yes, we can," all over again.

Just as they did four years ago when their candidate was an icon of hope and change, Democrats came together here Tuesday by the thousands to witness Barack Obama, now their president -- graying, battered and hoarse, but fighting hard until the final hours -- make history, one more time.

They lustily cheered election night returns that delivered such big states as California, Michigan and New York to Obama, and as the electoral votes piled up with critical swing states like Iowa and New Hampshire. And just 20 minutes after the polls closed in California, they broke into a collective wave of euphoria, as improbably, what was supposed to be a long, arduous night turned into sweet victory.

But even in their delirium, the scene at the McCormick Place Lakeside Center represented a stark shift from the searing and memorable moment four years ago, when under cloudless skies and before 250,000 in Grant Park, the world watched Obama in awe.

This time, cloudy skies and the threat of rain pushed the celebration indoors, where the mood was more pragmatic than ecstatic.

As the president's backers listened to hits like Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," many prepared to shed tears. But those tears were in relief more than awe, -- and supporters acknowledged that the heart-pumping rush of victory in the 2008 win was replaced by a more sober sense of validation.

"No matter what, nothing would ever replicate what happened four years ago," one of the most visually memorable moments in modern American history, said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, the spokesman for the Gore 2000 presidential campaign. "The first time, it was like when you initially get married, with the appropriate pomp and circumstance. ... This is more like a renewal of the vows. By definition, there's not the same level of excitement but it's an affirmation of the commitment to your relationship."

The mood was much more somber in Boston, headquarters of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. His reach for the presidency thwarted, the former Massachusetts governor stayed out of sight much of the evening. Dejected Romney supporters milled around a hotel ballroom where the Republican hopeful had planned to declare victory and groaned as key battlegrounds moved Obama's way.

Romney staffers almost all expressed shock or surprise that so many states had voted for Obama. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was watching returns with family in the same hotel where Romney and his family watched results.

After the most expensive election in American history, one marked by bitter attacks, superPACS, and the passion and partisanship of a dead heat contest that never let up, the heart-pumping optimism of the "hope and change" message of 2008 has been muted by a stark political and economic reality.

University of San Francisco politics Prof. James Taylor said that Obama's victory Tuesday may well feel "anti-climatic" compared to his 2008 win.

"People had such high expectations for the possibilities of what he would bring to the office and for the country," he said. "And as much as he's done -- and he's done a lot more than people have given him credit for -- there's still a certain wanting."

Monica Fitzgerald, a professor of history at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., who was present in Chicago, said she came to witness history again, no matter what the outcome.

In 2008, "it was a tremendously emotional experience," she said. "It broke a ceiling, and it was an inspirational moment."

Tuesday's election watch had its own inspirational moments: Flag-waving crowds erupted in cheers when key states like Iowa were announced for the president. And when his second term became reality, and his re-election was affirmed, there was a collective rush, a tidal wave of energy that enveloped the convention center.

The crowd broke into song, bellowing along with the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," Ray Charles' "Tell Me What I Say," and Aretha Franklin's "Respect," as if they wanted Mitt Romney and his supporters to hear them all the way in Boston.

"Romney said he wasn't writing a concession speech," said a German businessman, laughing and listening to the uniquely American reaction.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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