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President-elect Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and daughters Sasha, 7, left, and Malia, 10, wave to the crowd at the election night rally in Chicago on Tuesday night. ((Jae C. Hong/Associated Press))

Democratic candidate Barack Obama made history on Tuesday by becoming the first black man to be elected president of the United States, saying his win shows the world that "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand."

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," the Illinois senator told a jubilant crowd of more than 100,000 people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park.

The wide range of Americans who turned out to vote in this election "sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states," Obama said. "We are, and always will be, the United States of America."

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Marissa Wilkes, left, and Ladona Miller hug each other at an election party Tuesday in Greensboro, N.C., as they learn of Obama's victory. ((Gerry Broome/Associated Press))

He also congratulated Republican candidate John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, for a long and hard-fought campaign and reached out to their supporters.

"To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices," he said. "I need your help, and I will be your president, too."

The Democrat said his opponent, a veteran who survived years of torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, "has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine."

"We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader," Obama said.

The 47-year-old son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas also praised his family, including his wife, Michelle, his two young daughters and his grandmother, who died just two days before Obama was elected to the nation's highest office.

"While she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother's watching," he told the crowd.

The president-elect, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20, 2009, also spoke of the difficult challenges facing Americans beset by "two wars, a planet in peril and the worst financial crisis in a century."

"There's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, threats to meet and alliances to repair," he said. "The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term.

"But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there."

The emotional crowd responded with the Obama campaign's familiar chant of "Yes, we can," which Obama himself integrated into his victory speech, using it to punctuate an anecdote about a 106-year-old black voter he met in Atlanta  and the challenges she has seen America overcome in her lifetime.

"It's fantastic," said Hulon Johnson, 71, a retired Chicago public school principal celebrating in the crowd. "I've always told my kids this was possible; now they'll have to believe me."

The Obama victory also sparked celebrations across the country, even along the capital's famed Pennsylvania Avenue.

Among the crowd gathered at Howard University, Washington's historically black institution, one woman told CBC News that she never believed she would be able to vote for a black presidential candidate, let alone see one elected.

"I feel hope and change in the air," she said. "I'm really, really excited about waking up tomorrow."

McCain praises rival

Shortly after several U.S. media outlets projected that Obama had captured at least the required minimum of 270 electoral college votes, McCain told supporters in Phoenix that he called the Illinois senator to concede the election.

"A little while ago, I had the honour of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him," said McCain, alongside Palin, which garnered loud boos from the crowd.

"Please.… to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love. In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance."

Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama received the call from his Republican opponent around 11 p.m. ET, accepted McCain's concession and asked him for help in leading the country.

President George W. Bush also called Obama to congratulate him on his victory, a White House spokesman said.

Key wins in Virginia, Florida

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Republican presidential candidate John McCain concedes defeat during a rally with supporters on election night in Phoenix on Tuesday. ((Chris Carlson/Associated Press))

With more than 94 per cent of polls reporting, the Associated Press pegged Obama's electoral vote tally at 349, compared to McCain's 147. Obama was also leading in popular vote 52.3 per cent to 46.4 per cent.

Obama's victories included wins in the coveted states of Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, which has backed the winning presidential candidate since 1964, and Virginia, the former bedrock of the Confederacy and a state that hasn't backed a Democratic presidential candidate in 40 years.

Obama was also victorious in Florida, Iowa and New Mexico, states which were won by Bush in 2004.

On the west coast, Obama secured victories in California, Washington and Oregon, which have traditionally voted Democrat in presidential races.

Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina still remained undecided.

Observers hailed Obama's success — both during the Democratic primaries and in the presidential campaign — in marrying the internet to community organizing and fundraising, building a vast list of donors across the nation that allowed him to turn down public financing and spend money in traditionally Republican states.

McCain was the projected winner of 155 electoral votes in the southern states his campaign had expected to capture, including Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina, as well as in traditionally Republican states in the west, such as Utah and Wyoming.

A defeat early in the evening in Pennsylvania narrowed the chances of victory for the Republican hopeful, who had poured significant resources into the state and made several campaign appearances there in recent months.

Obama also added New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Wisconsin to his earlier projected victories in traditionally Democratic states, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Illinois, the state he has represented in the Senate since 2006.

States are apportioned electoral votes according to the size of their population, and in most cases, the winner of a state's popular vote gets all its electoral votes.

'We had a great ride'

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People gather at a polling station in Miami to show their support for Obama. ((Submitted by Juan Moreno) )

Before polls closed, McCain remained undeterred by opinion polls suggesting Obama was poised to win, vowing on the flight to his home state of Arizona that momentum was on his side to stage an upset victory.

Alongside his wife, Cindy, McCain, 72, reminisced about the lengthy journey over the past 22 months of campaigning.

"We've had a great ride, a great experience full of memories that we will always treasure," he said.

An Associated Press exit poll of more than 10,000 voters conducted in 300 precincts nationally suggested the majority of those casting their ballots were most worried about the nation's economy.

Six in 10 voters picked it as the most important issue facing the nation, while none of the four other issues listed by exit pollsters — energy, Iraq, terrorism and health care — was picked by more than one in 10 people, according to the poll's preliminary results.

At least 130 million Americans were expected to cast ballots to elect the 44th president of the United States in what was expected to be a record turnout. 

Bush: 'May God bless whoever wins'

As they wound down their campaigns on Monday, the candidates stuck to familiar themes in their addresses to supporters.

Obama warned that a vote for McCain would continue the failed policies of the administration of Bush, who is slated to leave office after eight years with near-record low approval ratings as America faces one of the largest financial crises since the Great Depression.

"When it comes to the economy, the truth is that John McCain has stood with President Bush every step of the way," he told his supporters at a rally in Virginia on Monday night.

But McCain — who portrayed himself during the campaign as a maverick candidate of change despite Republicans being the incumbent party in the White House — countered that Obama's policies are far left of the political views of the majority of Americans.

'We've had a great ride, a great experience full of memories that we will always treasure.'

— John McCain, Republican presidential candidate

Bush, whose record as president was under fire for much of the campaign, was conspicuously absent on election day, making no public appearances.

The president cast an absentee ballot several days ago and was spending election night in the White House residence at a dinner with his wife Laura and several friends, according to a spokeswoman.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush ended his dinner toast this way: "And may God bless whoever wins tonight."

With files from the Associated Press