Obama mourns grandmother on election eve

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - A subdued Barack Obama on Monday mourned his grandmother as a “quiet hero” who helped raise him, telling a campaign rally that her death had made the final night of his White House campaign “bittersweet.”

As the Democratic candidate arrived in North Carolina for his second-to-last rally before Tuesday’s election, he announced that Madelyn Dunham, 86, had died peacefully at her home in Honolulu after a battle with cancer.

Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, issued a statement of condolence and also offered best wishes to Obama.

Obama has often referred to Dunham, who helped his single-mother take care of him, as the rock of his family and someone who shaped his values.

A little more than a week ago, he left the campaign trail for a 22-hour trip to Hawaii to say goodbye to her.

“This obviously is a little bit of a bittersweet time for me,” Obama told an outdoor rally under drizzly rain as tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice choked up.

“She was somebody who was a very humble person and a very plain-spoken person,” he said. “She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America. They’re not famous. ... But each and every day they work hard.”

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Dunham helped raise Obama from the age of 10 while his mother was working in Indonesia.

Obama said after his Hawaii trip that he had been flooded with cards, flowers and well-wishes from around the country, and he regularly thanked crowds at his campaign rallies for their prayers.

“It brought our grandmother and us great comfort. Our grandmother was a private woman, and we will respect her wish for a small private ceremony to be held at a later date,” the Illinois senator and his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in a statement.

The statement described Dunham as “the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances.”

Dunham had followed Obama’s presidential bid with great interest.

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In a statement, McCain and his wife, Cindy, offered prayers for Obama and his family “as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives.”

“We mourn his loss and we are with him and his family today,” McCain later said at a rally in Roswell, New Mexico.

Obama thanked McCain for his comments at the Charlotte rally, saying it was “incredibly gracious” of him. He also toned down the political rhetoric in his speech, giving the Arizona senator credit for breaking with his party on issues like torture.

Obama affectionately called his grandmother “Toot” -- short for “tutu,” the Hawaiian word for grandmother.

He spoke of her often on the campaign trail, mentioning that she worked in a bomber assembly plant during World War Two. Later, she worked as a secretary in a bank and was eventually promoted to vice president.

She helped put Obama through private school in Hawaii and Obama has often credited her with instilling in him the Midwestern pragmatism she acquired as a Kansas native.

Just after issuing the statement announcing his grandmother’s death, Obama stopped at one of his campaign offices in Charlotte to visit volunteers. Though he seemed more downbeat than usual, he made some calls encouraging voters to get to the polls.

One volunteer, surprised at seeing him there, broke down in tears and he gave her a long hug but did not mention the news about his grandmother until the rally later on.

Additional reporting by John Whitesides; editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham