In December of 2007, before the Iowa caucuses the first tests of
the 2008 presidential primary seasonSenator Barack Hussein
Obama of Illinois was not thought by most Americans to have much
of a chance of winning his partys nomination or the presidency. He
was not well known in the rest of the country, and the media for the
most part treated his candidacy as a novelty because he was African-
American. That he was truly an African-American, the son of a
Kenyan father of the same name and of a white mother from Kansas,
was not well understood despite the growing popularity of his
memoir Dreams from My Father, in which he explored his unusual combination of African and American heritage.
Prior to Obamas 2004 election to the Senate he had been an Illinois state senator, and before that a community organizer, civil rights
attorney, and law school professor. His curriculum vitae also included
having been elected editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review,
the first black to hold that position. Prior to declaring his
candidacy for the presidency he had come to intense national attention
only briefly, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention,
when he gave a rousing, well-received keynote address that marked
him as an up-and-coming national figure. In that speech he mentioned
that his father, the son of a cook, had herded goats in Kenya
and attended a school with a tin roof, and then had received a scholarship
to study in a magical place, America, but this aspect of his story
did not attract much attention.
Though a 60 Minutes profile in early 2007 raised his visibility,
for most of 2007 his chances to become the Democratic nominee
were considered slim. New York Senator Hillary Clinton, wife of
former president Bill Clinton, was the front- runner, and she and
the pundits predicted that she would wrap up the nomination in
advance of the February 5, 2008, Super Tuesday primaries. But
Obama kept on giving speeches and meeting people and touching
bases. Although his campaign was relentlessly forward- looking, he
frequently acknowledged the past. Speaking in Selma, Alabama,
site of the 1965 civil rights confrontation known as Bloody Sunday,
he told an audience, Im here because somebody marched. Im
here because you- all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of
By December 2007 opinion polls in Iowa, portions of which adjoin
Illinois, showed a definite shift to Obama. His message of change
and his friendly appeal, coupled with superior organizing, drew him
even with Clinton. The polls showed that white voters were not afraid
to vote for this particular African- American candidate. Time magazine commented, though, that Iowa isnt always a good match for
Obamas strengths. The graveyards of political campaigns are littered
with candidates who excel at forging connections with individual voters
but who cant give a big speech to save their lives. Obama may be
that rare politician with the opposite problem. Before a crowd of
4,000, he can be magnetic and compelling. But before a crowd of
several hundred, he can sometimes fall flat.
Predictions were for a virtual three-way tie in the Iowa caucuses
among Obama, Clinton, and former senator John Edwards, the 2004
vice- presidential nominee. It was expected that after Iowa, primaries
in New Hampshire and other New En gland states would put
Clinton in position to clinch the nomination. Obama, like other supposedly
attractive candidates before him, was expected to fold his
campaign within a month or so.
And so on January 4, 2008, when Obama unexpectedly won the
Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, handily defeating Clinton
even among women voters, the effect was stunning. Overnight he
became a leading contender for his partys presidential nomination.
David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times and
commentator for PBS, in his Times column called Obamas primary
victory a political earthquake.
Youd have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this.
An African- American man wins a closely fought campaign
in a pivotal state. He beats two strong opponents, including
the mighty Clinton machine. He does it in a system that favors
rural voters. He does it by getting young voters to come
out to the caucuses.
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