The Winner's Circle

updated 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

WE THE PEOPLE
DIVIDED ON THE ISSUES, VOTERS UNITED IN THEIR DESIRE TO BE HEARD
Passions ran high, then higher. Across the country, volunteers ran get-out-the-vote drives and phone-banked madly. At the polls voter turnout was its highest in decades, some experts said, and people waited up to 15 hours to vote. Nothing could stop citizens like astronaut Leroy Chiao: He transmitted an electronic ballot to a secure mailbox at NASA from the international space station 230 miles above the earth. "Voting is each citizen's most basic, most powerful tool," he said. And so, in local, state and national races, the victors were chosen, including those on the following pages. "People like a contest," says USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics' Elizabeth Garrett of Election '04. "And we had one doozy of a contest."

BARACK OBAMA, 43
THE SON OF A KENYAN ECONOMIST BECOMES A U.S. SENATOR FROM ILLINOIS
Barack Obama doesn't make too much of being a political rock star. "I'm not someone who takes hype so seriously," said the Democrat and Illinois state senator, who walloped radio host Alan Keyes to claim a seat in the U.S. Senate. Well, he'll be riding into Washington on a tidal wave of the stuff. At the Democratic convention in Boston, Obama scored with a soaring speech that showcased his life story: His father, a black Kenyan student, and his mother, a white woman from Kansas, met at the University of Hawaii. When Obama was 2, his father left the family to study at Harvard and went on to become a prominent economist in Kenya. Eventually, Obama's parents divorced, and he spent his teen years with his maternal grandparents in Honolulu.

Obama won admission to Columbia and became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and a community organizer. His path to the Senate became suddenly smoother when his first GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, exited after it was revealed he had allegedly pressured his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, to have public sex in clubs. Keyes relocated from Maryland to take on Obama but never caught on in Illinois. A married father of two, Obama becomes the third African-American senator since Reconstruction. Not that he cares about fickle fame. "I'm mistrustful of our celebrity culture," he said before his win. "What's lasting is work."

GWEN MOORE, 53
A FORMER WELFARE MOM BEATS THE ODDS AND MAKES IT ALL THE WAY TO CONGRESS
Some people complain about difficult social problems. Moore, the first African-American woman to represent Wisconsin in Congress, has conquered them in her own life. The eighth of nine children, she grew up poor in Milwaukee and was sexually assaulted as a child by a relative. At 18, she was pregnant and on welfare. But a scholarship to Marquette University changed her life. After earning a political science degree, she launched a credit union for poor people, then ran successfully for the state senate and served for 12 years. In her congressional campaign, Moore praised her GOP opponent, Gerald Boyle, a Desert Storm veteran and attorney, as "a delightful young man"—and won by a landslide. "Too many people feel that where you start out in life dictates where you should end up," she says.

TOM COBURN, 56
A RADICAL REPUBLICAN WHO FAVORS THE DEATH PENALTY FOR ABORTIONISTS PULLS OFF A SURPRISE WIN IN OKLAHOMA
Tom Coburn isn't afraid of being disliked. In a bitter campaign for an Oklahoma Senate seat against Democrat Brad Carson, the 56-year-old family-practice doctor characterized the race as a choice between "good and evil." Remarks like that landed Coburn—who, like his opponent, had served in Congress—in so much hot water that many national Republicans, including House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert, had all but conceded the race. But Coburn, who calls himself a "plain ol' conservative," refused to tone down his message, calling for the death penalty for abortionists and alluding to "rampant lesbianism" in Oklahoma schools. But all the controversy didn't scare off some voters, who admired the cancer survivor for speaking his mind. Now headed for Washington, the married grandfather plans to keep fanning the flames: He wants to reform Social Security and Medicare and has already criticized members of his own party for spending too much taxpayer money. "If you like Washington the way it is," he said, "don't vote for me."

PROPOSITION 71
CALIFORNIA GIVES STEM CELL RESEARCH A BOLD—AND CONTROVERSIAL—FUTURE
Just a few years ago, stem cell research was obscure science, but this year it became a hotly debated issue. That was especially true in California, which passed a referendum—boosted by the efforts of real estate developer Robert Klein (above), whose son suffers from juvenile diabetes—mandating $3 billion in state funding. Federal funding of research into embryonic stem cells, the master cells that can turn into any kind of tissue and thus hold great scientific promise, was restricted by the Bush Administration. Stars lined up on both sides of the ballot initiative, called Prop. 71. In the closing weeks of the drive, Mel Gibson came out strongly against the proposal, going on Good Morning America to call it unethical. Meanwhile, proponents like Brad Pitt and the state's leading man, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, argued that our children may benefit from cures for diseases like Parkinson's. "I think people trusted the advice of 100 Nobel Prize-winning scientists and voted with their hearts," says director Jerry Zucker, a Prop. 71 supporter whose daughter has diabetes. "It's in the hands of the scientists now."

GEOFF DAVIS, 46
EVEN GEORGE CLOONEY'S DAD CAN'T STOP A KENTUCKY FAVORITE
To hear Geoff Davis's friends tell it, politics weren't the Kentucky businessman's first priority. He "just saw an opportunity to serve his country," says his spokesman Justin Brasell, "and thought he could do a good job." First, however, the staunch opponent of gun control and abortion had to face down an opponent with formidable connections: Nick Clooney, a former Cincinnati TV anchor, who relied heavily on funds raised by his No. 1 supporter, actor son George Clooney. In the end, voters in Kentucky's 4th District sided with Davis, who argued his values were more in line with constituents than those of his opponent's Hollywood supporters (including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Matt Damon). "There's an assault on the family right now," said Davis, a West Point grad and former Army Ranger who served in the Middle East in the '80s and enlisted the help of his wife, Pat, and their six children to wage his campaign. "We need to send someone [to Washington] who is going to stand for the values we represent."

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