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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 01:49 pm

Rising son

Barack Obama (left) with Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin on the night before the election
Photo by Todd Spivak

State Sen. Barack Obama made history on Tuesday by becoming just the fifth African American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate and the third since Reconstruction. Obama "spanked" Republican opponent Alan Keyes, as he promised he would weeks ago, by garnering more than 70 percent of the vote in what was the most lopsided Senate election in Illinois history.

Densely-populated Chicago likely determined the outcome of the election, which experts predict generated the highest voter turnout in state history, but Obama prevailed throughout Illinois, including in Sangamon County. Obama was among just two Democratic challengers -- the other being Ken Salazar of Colorado -- to win seats in the U.S. Senate, which remains under Republican control.

Obama's victory comes as no surprise, as polls showed he led Keyes by more than 40 points for several weeks before the election. But even the most astute of political observers could not have foreseen the series of events that helped fuel his meteoric rise onto the national stage.

When he entered the contest in January 2003 less than 20 percent of Illinois voters ever heard of Barack Obama. During his first months of campaigning he traveled with no entourage, often going unrecognized even in his own Chicago neighborhood. But those days are long gone. Today Obama is a household name throughout Illinois and across the country, in large part due to the spine-tingling keynote address he delivered in July at the Democratic National Convention.

Since then he's been the recipient of favorable profiles in a wide range of national publications, from The New Yorker to The Atlantic, and has been a featured guest on top-rated television news shows like NBC's "Meet The Press" and CNN's "Inside Politics." His memoir, published a decade ago, became an instant bestseller when it was reprinted this summer.

"I've been in Illinois politics for 40 years, and I've never seen an Illinois candidate who has connected this well in his first statewide race," says Dick Durbin, the state's senior senator. "He's generated more excitement and energy in our state than ever before."

The dramatic and sudden transformation of a rank-and-file state senator into a national political icon begs the questions:

How did an unknown, anti-war liberal with a Middle-Eastern sounding last name make history by becoming the nation's most powerful African-American elected official?

Can he fulfill the outsize expectations that have been thrust upon him?

And what advice would he give to other progressive Democratic candidates aspiring to high office?

In the days before the election, Illinois Times posed these questions to Obama and some of his top advisers and strategists, many of whom became giddy as they recalled the often surreal, fairy-tale-like events that led to the biggest landslide election in state history.

"In the beginning people said he was not electable," says Dan Shomon, Obama's political director and longest serving adviser. "Now he's like a Mick Jagger.

"No one could ever write a script like this."

Obama credits the success of his campaign to a number of factors, which he divides into two categories: things he could not control and things he could.

The things he could not control include good luck, excellent timing, and the near inexplicable self-destruction of his top opponents in both the primary and general elections.

The things he could control include his refusal to "go negative," his prudent management of a modest-sized campaign chest in the beginning stages of the campaign, and his early, outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.

Obama says the riskiest decision he made in his campaign was to oppose the war in Iraq. He spoke at several anti-war protests in Chicago during the months before the invasion when public support for the war was at its highest level.

In retrospect, Obama says his fervent stand against the war offered voters a glimpse into his character.

"Though opposing the war was not a good thing to do politically, it turned out to be the smart thing to do," he says. "It showed I'm not caught up with the polls. It gave a sense to people that I was willing to say what I mean."

During those early stages of the campaign Obama's biggest obstacles involved his name: not just that it was largely unrecognizable to most people in the state, but also that it bore an unfortunate similarity to Osama bin Laden's. A Republican political operative even constructed a Web site comparing Obama to the terrorist outlaw.

But he endeared himself to voters by explaining the origins of his exotic moniker, and revealing his compelling personal story. "My parents. . . would give me an African name, Barack, or 'blessed,' believing that in a tolerant American, your name is no barrier to success," he said at the Democratic National Convention.

Obama was named for his Kenya-born father, who married his mother, a white woman from Kansas. They divorced when he was two, and Obama was raised by his mother and grandmother in Hawaii and Indonesia. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, then journeyed to Chicago as a civil-rights attorney and community activist.

Throughout the campaign Obama proved adept at turning potential liabilities into assets. He was open about his teenage drug use, described in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. He used his experience to show he understood the problems of inner-city youth.

Obama's early stance on the Iraq war, his strange name, and his dabbling into cocaine and marijuana would have been enough to sink most candidates. But for Obama these issues only helped humanize him, and increase his appeal.

Obama may have spent the first part of his campaign in a steady, uphill climb, but he switched to cruise-control in the months before the election. This was in large part due to an inept Illinois Republican Party that provided much fodder for national gossip tabloids and late-night talk shows.

First there was multi-millionaire Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, who dropped out of the race after a judge ordered his divorce files unsealed. The documents revealed that Ryan's ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, accused him of trying to coerce her to perform sex acts in public.

With Ryan out of the running, Obama spent several weeks facing no opponent as the state GOP exhausted a laundry-list of replacement candidates that included former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.

Finally the GOP made the wildly unpopular decision to reach all the way to the East Coast and recruit two-time failed presidential hopeful Alan Keyes from Maryland to fill the slot. Keyes' strategy to use bombastic rhetoric to attract headlines turned off most voters, and even some party leaders. Most memorably, he said Jesus would not vote for Obama and that homosexuals, including Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, participated in "selfish hedonism." Keyes garnered just 22 percent of the vote.

The seeds for Obama's victory were sown in the primary, in which a crowded field of seven candidates vied to fill an open Senate seat being vacated by retiring two-term incumbent Peter Fitzgerald.

Obama ran on an uncompromisingly liberal platform that touted his progressive record in the state legislature, where he had sponsored several landmark bills that sought to combat racial profiling and reform the state's death penalty laws.

"Obama never shied away from the fact that he had a progressive record," says U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, who has backed Obama since he announced his candidacy.

Obama's strategy, according to advisers, was to shore up his constituency of African Americans and white liberals, then reach out to university campuses, environmentalists, and labor unions.

For months Obama polled in the middle-of-the-pack, with seemingly little chance of defeating frontrunners Blair Hull, a multi-millionaire candidate who spent a record-breaking $30 million of his own fortune on the primary, and state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who ran with the support of state Democratic Party leaders.

Obama got lucky as weeks before the election Hull unsealed divorce files revealing that one of his ex-wives once accused him of verbal and physical abuse. Obama also benefited from good timing. He waited to unleash a barrage of television ads until just before the election. By then, Hynes had already depleted his war chest.

Obama beat the odds by garnering 53 percent of the vote to win the nomination, even carrying precincts in typically conservative areas of the state.

"We had limited resources, and knew we had to save money for TV," says Shomon. "The other candidates had fired their guns at each other for so long, they didn't have enough bullets at the end."

As the lone African-American member of the U.S. Senate, Obama instantly becomes "the natural go-to guy for Civil Rights, and many progressive issues," Jackson predicts.

"A day in the life of Obama," Jackson says, likely will include phone calls from national black leaders like his father, The Rev. Jesse Jackson, and white liberals like U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

"The nature of being an African American in the Senate is so rare," says Jackson, who spent election night with Obama. "Given his sheer star power, you have to believe Barack has a profound sense of what it means to be that individual."

But working in a Republican-led Congress during the second Bush administration may limit Obama's effectiveness during his first years on Capitol Hill.

Obama says he plans to take things gradually by crafting a solid voting record and working on legislation that would, for instance, close corporate tax loopholes or expand health care for kids.

"It takes to time to build a bipartisan coalition and pass big bills," says Senator Durbin, who has already advised Obama on the machinations of Washington, D.C. "But because of his legislative background and personal skills, he'll do well from the start."

Reflecting on the experiences of the last two years, in which he was catapulted from obscurity to national acclaim, Obama offers some guidance to other like-minded liberals seeking public office:

"Progressives and Democrats," Obama says, "tend to get steamrolled by the other side, then whine about it afterwards, making them look both weak and petty.

"The best advice I can give is to be firm in your convictions without demonizing the other side. Stick with your core beliefs and describe them in commonsense terms.

"This approach makes people feel that you're not just an ideologue, but you're somebody who has the ability to listen to people."

Such an approach enables a broad appeal, and represents an alternative to politics-as-usual that is viewed as refreshing even by voters who do not always agree with the candidate's stands on issues, says David Axelrod, Obama's chief media consultant who helped engineer Bill Clinton's presidential victories.

"Barack is independent, he promotes political civility, and he reaches across party lines to get things done," says Axelrod.

"We're fighting for a style of politics that this state really needs, and that the Senate really needs."

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