Barack Obama flew north out of Florida yesterday, gambling that his campaign had done its all – up to and including an emotional midnight rally here in Kissimmee with former president Bill Clinton – to bring this crucial state into the Democratic column on election day.
A crowd of more than 35,000 waited for hours in a winter chill in this town just south of Orlando, for one of the most anticipated moments of Mr Obama's electoral odyssey – his sharing a stage, at last, with Mr Clinton, all tensions and rivalries of the past months buried for the sake of unity and victory.
Florida, which became ground zero of the recount battles of 2000 before being declared finally for George Bush, is once again on a knife edge. With a trove of 27 electoral college votes, it is regarded as an absolute must-win by both campaigns. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows John McCain trailing by two points, narrowing a gap of five points in the same survey last week.
Neither Mr Obama nor Mr Clinton gave any quarter to confidence or complacency, in spite of polls showing the Democratic holding more comfortable leads in other battleground states. Mr Clinton, clearly relishing his few minutes back in the heat of a campaign, told supporters to go home and work on friends still "teetering and wavering" over whom they should vote for. Mr Obama closed the rally by warning, "Don't believe those polls for one second ... Power concedes nothing without a fight".
Mr Obama may be gone from Florida now – he held one last rally yesterday morning in Sarasota at one end of the state's vote-rich central corridor – but his campaign revealed a last surprise. Former vice-president Al Gore will campaign on his behalf today in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – in precisely the same precincts that eight years ago gave us hanging chads (and George Bush.)
Watch Bill Clinton's speech
Earlier, Mr Obama had led a rally in Sunrise, in the south of the state, while simultaneously appearing on television screens across the country in his half-hour infomercial and also with a taped interview on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, when he joked about the much discussed "Bradley Effect" and how his white half may suddenly be overcome with doubt about his own candidacy in the voting booth on Tuesday. He had been in therapy to deal with that, he said.
Nothing was going to spoil the Barack and Bill show when it started, however. Never mind all that blood spilt during the primaries when Mr Clinton accused Mr Obama of spinning a "fairy tale" over his opposition to Iraq and when Mr Obama complained out loud that he wasn't sure which Clinton he was running against, Hillary or Bill.
Instead, the two men gave a bravura back-to-the-future performance, redolent at once with nostalgia for the achievements of Mr Clinton's eight years – notably the performance back then of the economy – the comparative disappointments of the Bush eight years and the hope of renewal under a President Obama.
Mr Clinton had publicly made peace at the Democratic Convention in Denver but this was the double act that the faithful had been waiting to see. And some had started to wonder if it would happen. "Folks, we can't fool with this," Mr Clinton told supporters, crammed into a grassy enclosure next to a minor league baseball stadium. "Our country is hanging in the balance. This man should be our president."
Mr Obama likewise paid generous tribute to the former president and to his wife, saying he was proud to be their friend. And if he was self-conscious sharing the stage with arguably the best campaigner in modern American history, Mr Obama did succeed in inflicting repeated fits of laughter on Mr Clinton.
Never did the former president seem more amused than when Mr Obama poked fun at his Republican rival for equating his promise to change tax rates for the wealthy with socialism. "By the end of the week, he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten," Mr Obama quipped.
"When I was in fourth grade, I split my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I gave it to my friend and he said, 'Look he's a redistributionist!'".
Mr Clinton took up the same theme. The Republicans, he said, "just presided over the biggest redistribution of wealth upwards since the 1920s, and we all know how that ended. So don't tell me about redistribution."