A good politician triumphs by adapting to the times and taking advantage of opportunities as they come. A great politician anticipates openings others don’t see and creates possibilities that were not there before.

John McCain might have been the second kind of politician, tried to be the first, and enters Election Day at a steep disadvantage. Barack Obama certainly seized the opportunities created by President Bush’s failures and the country’s profound discontent, which only deepened after the economic crash. But by creating a new social movement, new forms of political organization, and a sense of excitement and possibility not felt in politics for three decades, he bids to become one of the country’s most consequential leaders.

McCain began with a triumphant primary comeback and then adapted too much to the wishes of a discredited party. He turned his campaign into a conventional enterprise that defined its candidate down. In the spring, Democrats feared that Republicans had stumbled upon the one foe who might weather the powerful tide of dissatisfaction. They worried that this independent-minded war hero could fully separate himself from Bush and run as a sufficient break from the status quo. In state after state during the primaries, McCain drew heavily on the votes of independents, moderates and Republicans who were unhappy with Bush.

But instead of carrying on as the un-Bush who defied conservative orthodoxy, McCain embraced the right for fear of losing it. He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, which finally earned him cries of approval from the right but sent moderate voters scurrying Obama’s way.

And as the campaign closed, the McCain tragedy became a farce starring Joe the Plumber and casting Obama as a socialist with a radical bunch of friends. McCain was left hoping that a hidden cadre of voters who fear an Obama victory would save him by defying the pollsters.

McCain’s default allowed Obama to define the campaign, though Obama’s most important insight came much earlier: He saw an opening for a young African-American senator with brief Washington experience, realizing that the very unlikeliness of his candidacy would enhance its attractiveness.

He not only gave Americans a chance to lay down the burdens of race. He invited them to embrace his very newness and thereby move past the 1960s, the ’80s, the ’90s and the Bush era all at once. “It’s time to turn the page,” Obama would say, and there were many pages Americans wanted to turn.

His post-everything candidacy, wrapped in a powerful rhetoric of hope, was immensely attractive to the young. They became the happy warriors of campaign manager David Plouffe’s meticulously organized national machine. It worked its magic in neighborhoods never before blessed with even a precinct captain.

At rallies, Obama heaped praise on his organizers, a natural act of respect from a man tempered by community organizing and disciplined by the rigors of Chicago-style politics. And he married these old-fashioned skills to high technology: Mayor Daley, meet Bill Gates. He created a money machine that fueled his organizers and paid for one of the most extensive and focused advertising campaigns in the history of American politics. He created a brand with a logo and a slogan that barely changed over 21 months.

Obama understood better than any other Democrat that a vast new progressive movement, called into being by antipathy to Bush and outrage over the Iraq war, was waiting for leadership. Yet Obama knew that the often irate legions of the blogosphere needed to be fused with a soft-spoken center weary of partisanship and division. It was another unlikely marriage that Obama sanctified.

All this created Obama’s opportunity. But every campaign offers make-or-break moments of testing, and the key moment this time came on Sept. 24, the day McCain suspended his campaign and proposed postponing the first presidential debate so the candidates could devote themselves to work on the financial bailout.

Obama quickly rejected McCain’s suggestion, McCain backed down, and Obama established himself as a leader. When the debate took place two days later, Obama’s calm, deliberate performance confirmed his leadership skills for millions in the ranks of the uncertain.

If any candidate’s recent past stands as a warning against premature obituaries, it is McCain’s. But there seems to be an inexorable quality to Obama’s rise this year because he is the first truly 21st-century figure in American politics. He is the innovator who has set the standard for the next political era.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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