On Nov. 4, Barack Obama will be elected as the next president of the United States. The real excitement won't come from watching that foregone conclusion come to pass. No, the big question is, will Democrats nationwide simply "win" the night—or will they deliver an electoral drubbing so thorough that it signals the utter rejection of conservative ideology and kills the notion that America is a "center-right" country? Here are the key face-offs:
A national mandate: As President George W. Bush proved in 2000 with his razor-thin victory, a win is a win. But Obama will look for a genuine mandate reflected in both the electoral and the popular vote, as well as a broad geographic triumph. The safe bet now is for Obama to win with 300 to 350 electoral votes and a popular-vote margin of about 5 percent—a healthy victory. But 379 electoral votes would match Bill Clinton's 1996 tally without help from a third party candidate such as Ross Perot, while 53.5 percent of the popular vote would surpass President George H.W. Bush's 1988 total.
A national party: In recent years, Democrats have done well on the coasts and in the Great Lakes region, but had trouble in the Mountain West and South. Obama, however, is poised to prove that the old red/blue map no longer applies. In fact, of the 21 states that gave Bush double-digit wins in 2004, only two—Oklahoma and Tennessee—are showing bigger margins for John McCain in current polling. Seven of those 21 are now single-digit contests. Flipping some of those states will show that Democrats can win in GOP "strongholds" and that Republicans are no longer safe—anywhere.
Statement races: Losing your leader isn't just disruptive, it's demoralizing, as Democrats learned in 2004 when Republicans beat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. That's why this year's deadlocked race in Kentucky between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Bruce Lunsford, has Republicans in panic mode. Meanwhile, one of the GOP's biggest Senate celebrities, Elizabeth Dole, trails Democrat Kay Hagan in a tight race. In the House, Democrats are within striking distance in Wyoming's lone seat, once held by Vice President Dick Cheney, and in Texas's Seventh Congressional District, once held by George H.W. Bush.
Republicans are also in danger of losing what little diversity they currently have in Congress. If Democrats Joe Garcia, Raul Martinez and Annette Taddeo sweep the three south Florida seats held by Cuban-American Republicans, it will leave the House GOP caucus with no Latino members—as well as no African-Americans or Asian-Americans. New England's last House Republican, Connecticut's Chris Shays, could fall as well.
The McCarthyists: Democrats have seethed for six years at Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss for the repugnant campaign he waged against Vietnam War hero Max Cleland in 2002, in which he called his triple-amputee opponent a coward and implied he was a traitor. Fittingly, those same scorched-earth tactics are now creating headaches for Republicans. Reps. Michelle Bachmann (Minnesota), Robin Hayes (North Carolina) and Randy Kuhl (New York) are under siege for overplaying the patriotism card. Chambliss, meanwhile, is back in the limelight: he's in a nail-biter with Democrat Jim Martin.
Ballot initiatives: Cultural conservatives are frustrated at nationwide gains toward gay marriage equality, with California, Massachusetts and Connecticut now offering full marital rights to same-sex couples. California's law is being challenged by the ballot initiative Proposition 8. If it's successful, the cause of equality may be set back decades. If not, momentum will be boosted. South Dakota rejected a draconian abortion ban in 2006, but anti-abortion forces are back with a slightly modified version featuring language specifically designed to appease the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy. And in Colorado, corporate forces are pushing a "right to work" initiative designed to hamper union organizing in the state. No anti-union ballot initiative has been defeated at the polls in more than a decade.