ABOUT two months ago an American friend listened to a presentation by Republicans on their internal polling. The McCain people accidentally projected a PowerPoint. And very quickly whisked it off.
No wonder. It showed how things would stand if Hillary Clinton had been selected as the Democratic nominee. At a time when Obama and McCain were neck and neck, it had Hillary 10 points ahead, ascending to the White House, this time as boss.
The story confirms the gamble taken by voters in the Democratic primaries when, entranced by Obama, they propelled the junior senator from Illinois ahead of the junior senator from New York as the party's candidate for president. I was at one with Bill Clinton in thinking this gamble would not pay off.
"We don't want a black family in the White House" was one comment from a voter reported to me second-hand. It froze me with horror. In New York a Latin American migrant told me he was a registered Democrat and a Clinton supporter but he'd seen the mess that David Dinkins had made of New York. Dinkins, mayor from 1990 to 1993, was an African-American. Obama, in this Democrat's view, would do the same to the country. He was voting for McCain.
We've all been educated in the Bradley effect - namely, that a percentage of white voters will tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate but in the privacy of the voting booths do the opposite.
It originated in the 1982 defeat of black Tom Bradley for governor of California - 15 points ahead in the LA Times poll three days before the election he was defeated 45 per cent to 55 per cent. Estimated as being capable of slicing off 10 per cent of the vote, the Bradley effect is suggested as the reason for the slim victory margins of Dinkins and the black governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, in 1989 - despite their comfortable leads in the polls.
The brutal truth is that Obama's was not the ideal biography for someone seeking to vault over three centuries of race prejudice. There's the Arabic name: Barack Hussein Obama. And the stubborn ignorance that has Americans insisting he is a Muslim. There are the 20 years spent in the congregation of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Above all, the absence of executive experience.
None of the above need count. Except that whites in the South stopped voting Democrat in 1968 in protest at Lyndon Johnson giving votes to blacks and the Democratic party desegregating. Race was the magic that turned the South Republican for 40 years.
Remember, too, only 18 per cent of the American population have passports (compared with about half Australians) and are fed by a media that reports celebrities above news of the world. Their working class is crushed and demoralised, besotted with gun ownership and ole time religion. Colin Powell, war hero and conservative, would have been a better bet to break the habits of prejudice.
By the middle of the year, polls confirmed the election was becoming a referendum on Obama. Six years into an unpopular war and in the middle of what was then a modest recession, everything suggested the election should be about George Bush, not the Democratic candidate.
A narrow McCain win was - for realists and pessimists - more likely, especially as the incumbent party generally catches up in the last week of a campaign.
Then came September 15. Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At 9am John McCain said in Jacksonville: "The fundamentals of our economy are strong." The ensuing full-blown, epoch-making economic crisis propelled Obama ahead. Economics dominates the election.
To be fair, it was Obama's coolness under fire that seemed to clinch the deal, especially in the three debates in which he held his own and pressed every advantage.
Michael Kelly, an Australian who teaches speech communication, describes the Obama voice as smooth, deep, lyrical, with the use of swinging cadence to "entertain the ear", stringing words and phrases together like a jazz musician.
It was deliberate. Obama knew he had to prove to whites an African-American need not be angry, aggressive, emotional.
The first Africans arrived in America in 1619. This was a full year before the Mayflower. Yet America has been coming to terms with their presence ever since.
Its constitution contradicted the Declaration of Independence to accommodate slavery. The country then fought a civil war to end it. For a century the South fenced in black citizens behind Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. In the 1950s blacks insisted on due process in the constitutional courts. The nation yielded to black pressure for equality.
In 1968, Martin Luther King jnr was cut down by racists and the "nigger lover" Robert Kennedy followed King to a martyr's grave.
If an African American wins the November 4 election there will be no avoiding the symbolism.
Abraham Lincoln once warned Americans: "We cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves."
Economic suffering may overtake the last redoubts of race prejudice. And some Americans - in spite of themselves - may do something to make their friends cheer. Bob Carr, premier of NSW from 1995 to 2005, is a student of American political history.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
* November 4, 2008, general election: Voters across the nation cast their votes in presidential and congressional elections for electors to serve in the electoral college.
Each state has a different number of college members. Whichever candidate wins the most votes in each state wins all of that state's electoral college members.
* December 15, 2008, meeting of electors: The electors in each state meet to select the US president and vice-president.
* January 6, 2009, counting electoral votes in Congress: Votes are formally counted in front of a joint session of Congress.
* January 20, 2009, inauguration day: The winner of the general election is sworn in as president and takes control of the White House.