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Obama rises from political obscurity to verge of history

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer Sat May 10, 3:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The amazement was on their faces. Hundreds waited for Barack Obama on that evening in South Carolina, 15 weeks ago, to claim victory — a surprising victory, surprisingly large.



And amazing it was. It made it possible for him to stand today on the verge of being the first black person ever nominated for president by a major party.

One could guess the thoughts of the blacks and whites in that crowd: Can you believe that our state — South Carolina, first to secede and first to open fire in the Civil War — is now catapulting a black man to the front of the presidential contest in a year that bodes well for Democrats?

"Race doesn't matter," some began to chant. "Race doesn't matter!"

The cry soon gave way to more familiar chants of "Yes we can," and everyone in the auditorium surely knew that race does still matter in so many ways. But in a pinch-me moment, they seemed to realize that a barrier had been broken with a swiftness and certainty that even they had not foreseen.

Even more astounding, the man vaulting ahead of the universally known former first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, had been a state legislator only four years earlier — a lawyer with no fame, wealth or family connections.

Now, the entire nation and countless foreigners are absorbing a moment that had seemed decades away, if possible at all. Smart strategists and rank-and-file voters ponder how Obama rose so far so fast, and theories abound. Historians will sort it out someday, but Obama's blend of oratory, biography, optimism and cool confidence come to mind most immediately.

It's not just about him, of course. If America can seriously think of putting a black man in the White House, surely it must also profoundly rethink the relevance of race, the power of prejudice, the logic of affirmative action and other societal forces that have evolved slowly through the eras of Jim Crow, desegregation and massive immigration.

Maybe the toughest question is this:

Is Obama, with his incandescent smile and silky oratory, a once-in-a-century phenomenon who will blast open doors only to see them quickly close on less extraordinary blacks?

Or is he the lucky and well-timed beneficiary of racial dynamics that have changed faster than most people realized, a trend that presumably will soon yield more black governors, senators, mayors and council members?

Presidential campaigns have destroyed many bright and capable politicians. But there's ample evidence that Obama is something special, a man who makes difficult tasks look easy, who seems to touch millions of diverse people with a message of hope that somehow doesn't sound Pollyannaish.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a black Maryland Democrat who endorsed Obama early, says the Illinois senator convinces people of all races that Americans as a society, and as individuals, can achieve higher goals if they try.

"He says we can do better, and his life is the epitome of doing better," says Cummings, noting that Obama was raised by a single mother who sometimes relied on food stamps. "He convinces people that there's a lot of good within them."

And why should they believe such feel-good platitudes? "Because he's real and he has confidence in his own competence," Cummings says.

Without question, Obama is an electrifying speaker. At virtually every key juncture in his trajectory, he has used inspirational oratory to generate excitement, buy time to deal with crises, and force party activists to rethink their assumptions that a black man with an African name cannot seriously vie for the presidency.

A prime-time speech at the Democratic convention in Boston catapulted him to national attention in 2004. When his presidential campaign badly trailed Clinton's high-flying operation, he gave it new life with a timely Iowa speech that outshone her remarks moments earlier on the same stage. And a heavily covered March 18 speech about race relations calmed criticisms about his ties to his former pastor, although Obama had to revisit the matter when the minister restated incendiary remarks about the government.

Obama has a compelling biography, too. The son of a black African father he barely knew, and a white Kansan mother who took him from Hawaii to Indonesia, he was largely raised by his white maternal grandparents. He finished near the top of his Harvard law class, then rejected big firms' salaries to work as a community organizer in Southside Chicago, where he found a church, his wife and a place that felt like home.

But all those attributes don't explain the Obama phenomenon.

Other great orators have fallen short of the presidency, including Daniel Webster and William Jennings Bryan.

Plenty of brilliant people have tried and failed, too. Bill Bradley was a Princeton graduate, basketball star and Rhodes Scholar.

Intriguing biographies aren't enough, either. John Glenn was an astronaut and American hero, but he couldn't get off the presidential launchpad.

Jim Margolis, a veteran campaign strategist now working for Obama, thinks it is his blend of all these traits, wrapped in "authenticity," which makes Obama's message of hope and inclusion seem plausible, not pie in the sky.

Margolis interviewed many of Obama's Harvard classmates for TV ads and documentaries. They told him Obama "was wise beyond his years, and never talked down to people," Margolis said.

"He has this amazing ability to connect with people and understand their problems," he said. "And through it all, there is this optimism."

For a politician with only four years of experience at the federal level, Obama also has spot-on instincts, associates say, and a steely confidence in his convictions, in good times and bad. His roughest patch came after Clinton revived her campaign with wins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a renewed uproar over Obama's former pastor threatened to consume his campaign.

Obama rejected advice to criticize Clinton more fiercely, and went back to his themes of political and racial reconciliation. His solid win in North Carolina and near miss in Indiana confirmed his judgment.

Obama and his small core of longtime advisers also outsmarted the vaunted Clinton team by focusing early on small caucus states, where he racked up important wins. His fundraising has been nothing short of astounding, with millions of dollars pouring in via the Internet from people who never gave a politician a dime.

Obama fans often search for words to express their attraction.

"He just really electrifies you when you are listening to him," said Lena Bradley, 78, a beauty salon owner in Washington. "He has something that's leading him."

As ephemeral as "something that's leading him" sounds, it's hard to explain in more clinical terms his impact on people. But it's there.

As recently as June 2006, a lone reporter could travel with Obama in cars and small planes as he campaigned for other Democrats in state after state. On one such visit to Massachusetts and New Jersey, his charm was on full display before crowds of various size, age and ethnic makeup. He made teenagers guffaw by saying people pronounced his name "Yo Mama." He quoted scripture in a black church, and set every head nodding.

On a plane ride he talked with the reporter for an hour, on the record, with barely a hint of the nervousness or hedging that most politicians understandably display to someone with a pen, pad and tape recorder.

Before an audience of 300 people in East Orange, N.J., Obama spotted local resident and famous singer Dionne Warwick. He smiled impishly and sang, "If you see me walking down the street," the opening line of her hit, "Walk on By." The crowd roared its approval of his on-key ad lib.

Some veteran politicians also see "something that's leading" Obama, whether they can explain it or not.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime friend and supporter, said "nothing was ever the same" after Obama's Boston speech.

Durbin recalls pulling Obama into a vacant meeting room in Chicago's Union League Club, where both had spoken on a Friday afternoon in November 2006. He felt it was time for his young colleague to decide whether to run for the White House.

"There are moments in life when you can pick the time," Durbin said he told Obama. "But when it comes to running for president, the time can pick you. You've been picked. This is your moment."

A short time later, Obama launched his candidacy.

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Issues

Senator Obama has been able to develop innovative approaches to challenge the status quo and get results. Americans are tired of divisive ideological politics, which is why Senator Obama has reached out to Republicans to find areas of common ground. He has tried to break partisan logjams and take on seemingly intractable problems. During his tenure in Washington and in the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama has accumulated a record of bipartisan success.




The Blueprint for Change



Civil Rights

There is no more fundamental American right than the right to vote. Before the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes and property requirements disenfranchised many Americans, especially minorities. More than 40 years later, there are still numerous obstacles to ensuring that every citizen has the ability to vote.





Economy

As president, Barack Obama will implement a 21st century economic agenda to help ensure that America can compete in a global economy, and ensure the middle class is thriving and growing. He will increase investments in infrastructure, energy independence, education, and research and development; modernize and simplify our tax code so it provides greater opportunity and relief to more Americans; and implement trade policies that benefit American workers and increase the export of American goods.





Education

Throughout America's history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background. Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country's greatest natural resource - the American people. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential. Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either - or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.





Energy & Environment

Senator Obama has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for a comprehensive national energy policy and has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence. By putting aside partisan battles, he has found common ground on CAFE, renewable fuels, and clean coal.





Ethics

Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has been a leader in fighting for open and honest government. As a U.S. Senator, he has spearheaded the effort to clean up Washington in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. In a politically charged election year, Obama acknowledged that corruption was a problem that plagued both political parties. He subsequently enlisted the help of Republican allies to limit lobbyist influence, shine sunlight into the earmarks process and promote open government.





Faith

In June of 2006, Senator Obama delivered what was called the most important speech on religion and politics in 40 years. Speaking before an evangelical audience, Senator Obama candidly discussed his own religious conversion and doubts, and the need for a deeper, more substantive discussion about the role of faith in American life.





Family

Strong families raise successful children and keep communities together. While Senator Obama does not believe that we can simply legislate healthy families, good parenting skills or economic success, he does believe we can eliminate roadblocks that parents face and provide tools to help them succeed. A husband and father of two, Senator Obama has promoted strong families in the Senate.





Fiscal

"The cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on ... If Washington were serious about honest tax relief in this country, we'd see an effort to reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies." - Barack Obama, Speech in the U.S. Senate, March 13, 2006





Foreign Policy

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Obama has fought to strengthen America's position in the world. Reaching across the aisle, Obama has tackled problems such as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and stopping the genocide in Darfur.





Healthcare

"I...believe that every American has the right to affordable health care. I believe that the millions of Americans who can't take their children to a doctor when they get sick have that right...We now face an opportunity - and an obligation - to turn the page on the failed politics of yesterday's health care debates. It's time to bring together businesses, the medical community, and members of both parties around a comprehensive solution to this crisis, and it's time to let the drug and insurance industries know that while they'll get a seat at the table, they don't get to buy every chair." -Barack Obama, Speech in Iowa City, IA, 5/27/07





Homeland Security

Five years after 9/11, our country is still unprepared for a terrorist attack. From improving security for our transit systems and chemical plants, to increasing cargo screening in our airports and seaports, the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission have been underfunded and ignored. The 9/11 Commission gave the government five F's and 12 D's on the implementation of its recommendations. Senator Obama is a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and has supported efforts to base homeland security spending on risk rather than pork-barrel politics. He has also introduced legislation to strengthen chemical plant and drinking water security and to enhance disaster preparedness.





Immigration

Barack Obama has played a leading role in crafting comprehensive immigration reform. Obama believes the immigration issue has been exploited by politicians to divide the nation rather than find real solutions. This divisiveness has allowed the illegal immigration problem to worsen, with borders that are less secure than ever and an economy that depends on millions of workers living in the shadows.





Iraq

Before the war in Iraq ever started, Senator Obama said that it was wrong in its conception. In 2002, then Illinois State Senator Obama said Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the United States and that invasion would lead to an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. Since then, Senator Obama has laid out a plan on the way forward in Iraq that has largely been affirmed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.





Poverty

There are 37 million poor Americans. Most poor Americans are in the workforce, yet still cannot afford to make ends meet. And too many poor Americans are single mothers who are raising children. Barack Obama has been a lifelong advocate for the poor -- as a young college graduate, he rejected the high salaries of corporate America and moved to the South Side of Chicago to work as a community organizer. As an organizer, Obama worked with churches, Chicago residents and local government to set up job training programs for the unemployed and after school programs for kids.





Rural

"We are at that critical and urgent moment. If Washington continues policies that work against America's family farmers, our rural communities will fall further behind - and so will America. But if we reject the politics that has shut ordinary folks out, we can create a new story for rural America ... The dreams of rural Americans are familiar to all Americans - to make a good living, to raise a healthy and secure family, and to leave our children a future of opportunity. It's time for real leadership for rural America to extend that American dream. That's the dream of opportunity that I've spent my life fighting for. And that's what our rural agenda will do." - Barack Obama, Speech in Fairfax, IA, October 16, 2007





Service

"Your own story and the American story are not separate - they are shared. And they will both be enriched if we stand up together, and answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century ... I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency." - Barack Obama, Speech in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, December 5, 2007





Seniors & Social Security

Americans turning 65 this year have grown our economy by 4.5 times over the course of their working lives. They have tilled our soil, defended our country, taught our children, worked in our factories, and raised a new generation to build upon their successes. And yet, many struggle to get by. Threats to Social Security and Medicare, skyrocketing health costs, and abuse and neglect of seniors all jeopardize our unspoken covenant: our seniors worked hard to take care of us, and now we must be here for them.





Technology

"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable, and let's invest in scientific research, and let's lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America."





Veterans

As a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Senator Obama is committed to helping the heroes who defend our nation today and the veterans who fought in years past. A grandson of a World War II veteran who went to college on the G.I. Bill, Senator Obama has reached out to Republicans and Democrats in order to honor our commitment to America's veterans.





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