We are a historically conservative newspaper for a staunchly conservative community. And we are pleased that in Sen. John McCain, we have an excellent conservative candidate who, if elected, will serve ably and competently at this extraordinarily critical juncture in America’s history.

Yet it is with enthusiasm and the highest hopes for the future of our nation that the Lebanon Daily News endorses Sen. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, for president of the United States.

Over the years, Sen. McCain has earned our respect. While his conservative credentials are unquestionable, he has earned the label of maverick by following his political conscience no matter where it leads — most notably in recent memory by his unwavering support for an unpopular war, sticking to principles that could have cost him his party’s nomination and could cost him the presidency. But we have been disappointed by how Sen. McCain has conducted his campaign, allowing his Rovian-style handlers to take the low road again and again, attacking his opponent with cheap shots that he knows are false or at least unsubstantive. We were gravely disappointed in his choice of a running mate who is divisive because she is a political extremist and — above all else — simply not ready to be president.

We acknowledge reservations about Sen. Obama, whose politics are well to the left of our own and whose experience on the national stage is relatively brief.

But he has impressed us deeply with his conduct during this long, difficult campaign. He has stuck largely to the high road. He has surrounded himself with good people, and he has displayed a steady hand and a rich intellect that enables him to quickly grasp complex and thorny issues. In drawing his party together after a bitter and divisive primary campaign, he has shown the skills at conciliation and consensus-building that the next president will desperately need.

Much is made of the “promises” made by presidential candidates. In fact, of course, they are not promises at all, merely articulations of vision. It is still Congress that writes the laws, passes the budgets and (we hope) the spending bills, and approves (or not) the treaties. Still, the president is the closest thing we have, in our system, to a head of state. To the rest of the world, he or she in effect personifies the United States of America.

We believe our nation is at one of those historic crises when great leadership is needed. Time and again before when we’ve been there, great leaders have stepped forth — Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan. We believe Sen. Obama is a visionary leader who can inspire Americans and restore our country to its rightful position of leadership in the world, respected among nations. We believe he has the right stuff to be among the great ones.

The next four years may well be a time during which great sacrifice will be needed from us all. We call on the voters of the Lebanon Valley to make the first of those sacrifices by setting aside lesser concerns — party, political philosophy, single-issue preoccupations, old fears about otherness fanned by Internet smear campaigns — to vote for the candidate with the vision to lead us out of this crisis.

That candidate is Sen. Barack Obama.