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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Come January 20, 2009, history will be made in the United States: Either the first black president will be sworn into office or the first female vice president will take the oath.
The die was cast on Friday when Republican presidential candidate John McCain surprised the country with his choice of a relatively obscure Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential running mate.
McCain announced the decision in Dayton, Ohio, just more than 12 hours after Democrat Barack Obama accepted his party's nomination before a huge crowd in Denver, becoming the first black presidential candidate to represent a major U.S. party.
"I think this says that America in the 21st century is much different than America in the 20th century," said Candice Nelson, who heads American University's government department in Washington. She added that gains by minorities "are now being realized ... in all areas of American life, even the highest levels of elective office -- the presidency and vice-presidency."
The candidacies of Obama and Palin come after about two decades of increased numbers of women and minorities jumping into the political arena in local and statewide campaigns, and as the minority population of the United States has hit 100 million, about one-third of the total population.
That means more women and minorities with established track records are available as candidates at a time when the country is becoming more diverse, said Paul Light, a professor at New York University. "The pipeline of potential national candidates is up and gubernatorial candidates are up," he said.
Voters go to the polls on November 4 to decide whether Republican President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will be succeeded by Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, or whether McCain and Palin will lead for the next four years.
Since the inauguration of the first president, George Washington, in 1789, only white men have held the top two government positions in Washington.
Women were not even allowed to vote in U.S. elections until 1920. While the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1870 to allow blacks to vote, it was not until the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s that blacks received full access to the ballot box. There were still charges in elections as recent as 2004 of isolated cases of blacks being intimidated at some voting stations.
The unique face-off this year is the culmination of a presidential campaign that has had more than its share of plot twists and historic firsts -- and after Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2007.
Hillary Clinton, the early favorite for the Democratic nomination before losing a bitter race to Obama, ran the most successful national campaign of any woman in U.S. politics, saying her primary contest vote totals put "18 million cracks" in a "glass ceiling" that has kept women out of the White House's Oval Office.
Palin, noting Clinton's accomplishment, said of her new role, "The women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling" in the executive branch.
If she were to win, the conservative Palin would be standing on the shoulders of liberal Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, who ran unsuccessfully in 1984 as the first major party female vice presidential candidate.
In the U.S. Congress, there were 78 women who took seats in the House of Representatives last year. Sixteen women hold Senate seats and 42 blacks serve in Congress.
Recent U.S. presidents have named women and blacks to major Cabinet positions: Madeleine Albright as the first female secretary of state and Colin Powell as that department's first black secretary, for example.
There are still only two black governors and only eight women holding those posts in the 50 states.
As politicians, Light said there was not much difference between women and minority candidates versus men and whites.
"They've become very good candidates. But they don't run differently from other candidates. They go negative at just about the same rates, near as we can tell, they're just as tough."
If nicknames are any indication, Light is on the mark: Cheney has such a tough-guy reputation he is known around town as "Darth Vader." Palin earned the name "Sarah Barracuda" for her fierce competitiveness in high school sports.
Editing by Peter Cooney