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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 09:23 pm

Barack & Roll

The junior senator from Illinois shows that he’s the real deal — but we already knew that

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., addresses supporters at his caucus night rally held at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines, Iowa

Adin Davis stands on a brightly colored mat decorated with numbers, letters, and shapes in the center of a packed room that’s growing more crowded by the minute. He tries to entertain the throng with Iowa political trivia.
“This is nice, but come November 2008 all of y’all — all of us — need to vote,” he tells the anxious crowd. Inside the large but oddly shaped science classroom in north Des Moines’ Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Math and Science, it feels as though students forgot to extinguish their Bunsen burners before leaving for the long winter break. Outside, the mercury has fallen into the single digits, and a skim of ice covers portions of the school’s tiny parking lot. Nearly an hour has gone by, and Polk County’s 43rd Precinct Democratic caucus still has not begun. A few volunteers frantically check voter lists and register first-time caucus-goers. About 200 people in all have gathered to decide how to divvy up the precinct’s four delegates, who will represent the area at special countywide nominating convention later in the year. Davis estimates that tonight’s turnout is the largest in the history of the precinct, which is located in a ZIP code where almost half the residents are African-American and three times as many people live in poverty as do those in the rest of Iowa.
A woman whose thin frame is engulfed in a black Southpole coat saunters in late, looks around the room, and says, “Just tell me where to stand for Barack.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talks to a network reporter. “I think Barack is going to the White House,” Durbin tells Illinois Times.
In the ritual known as the Iowa Democratic caucus, supporters of various candidates literally stand in a corner and more or less play political Red Rover. Represented are supporters of U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois, as well as John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004. A man wearing a hat emblazoned with “KOREA VETERAN” says he’s uncommitted. Davis takes a head count, but to begin the process voters caucusing for the different candidates must retreat to opposite corners. He asks for a show of hands from all the Obama people, and nearly every one goes up. Their reasons for supporting the 46-year-old Obama vary, reflecting the irrational way in which Americans sometimes pick their leaders. Whatever their motives, Obama’s recent success can largely be attributed to the kinds of people who have shown up at this school on this night. Analysts credit the Obama campaign with doubling turnout in Iowa over that in 2004, particularly by mobilizing independents and young folks, who represented one-fifth of all caucus-goers and 57 percent of whom broke for Obama.
In addition to the white-haired seniors clutching walkers and tethered to oxygen tanks, who risked their health on an icy night to caucus, were first-timers such as 17-year-old Xavier Fox (Iowans are permitted to caucus as long as they will turn 18 by Nov. 4, Election Day) who caucused for Obama but just wanted his voice to be heard. Then there’s this reason from a young female teacher: “He’s very intelligent and he was the only one to oppose the war from the beginning, plus — and I know this is bad — but I think he is just so fine.”

Until the decisive first-place Iowa finish, it wasn’t clear whether the Obama phenomenon was real. Just a few years ago, Obama was a state lawmaker in Springfield and hardly a household name even in his home state. He got some lucky breaks along the way, being elected to the U.S. Senate when the campaigns of several worthy competitors fell apart. The media liked him, but how would voters in a lightly populated and lily-white Midwestern state take to this black man with the strange name and liberal record?
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talks to a network reporter. “I think Barack is going to the White House,” Durbin tells Illinois Times.

On Jan. 3, Democrats in Iowa answered that question, and on Tuesday New Hampshire voters agreed. Obama won Iowa with a solid 38 percent of the vote, eclipsing the rest of the field, including Edwards, who had campaigned in Iowa since 2004, and former first lady Clinton, who had a stronger, better-financed organization. In New Hampshire, Obama came in a close second behind Clinton.  
Obama won despite — or because — of his progressive record. Unlike Clinton and Edwards, he didn’t vote to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq; he wasn’t in Congress at the time and denounced the war at protests. Out on the stump, he boasts of having expanded health insurance for children during his time in the Illinois Legislature. Furthermore, he tells voters, he wants to raise the minimum wage and peg it to inflation, expand the Head Start program, and overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act. When Obama announced last year in Springfield that he would run for president, skeptics — many of them Democrats — were reluctant to back him, fearing that the “Barack star” represented little more than the flavor of the month, and the fact that the flavor happened to be chocolate didn’t help matters.
In the past year, though, Obama — who’s been the cover story in both Time and Vibe magazines — proved the most durable of all of the candidates, sticking to his messages of keeping hope alive and uniting the nation with unwavering, almost Republican, discipline.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talks to a network reporter. “I think Barack is going to the White House,” Durbin tells Illinois Times.
“He’s got enough of that charm and personal appeal that people believe in the guy,” says Christopher Z. Mooney, a political-studies professor with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “He benefits from that process by which people vote, that gut level that says, ‘Do I like the guy? Is he honest? Is he saying words that I like to hear in the way that I like to hear them?’ ”
What’s more, Obama’s lead in South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary on Jan. 26 and where Clinton hoped that the work that she and her husband carried on for civil rights would resonate among black voters, has grown to double digits. Now Clinton’s campaign and, to a lesser extent, Edwards’ are looking to make up ground on Feb. 5, when voters in some 20 states — including delegate-rich California, New Jersey, and New York — head to the polls.
Some experts predict that party nominating conventions, which historically have simply served a ratifying function, will play a key role this time around. Mooney calls that scenario highly unlikely, saying that something will jell sooner rather than later for one of the Democratic frontrunners. He adds: “Obama is four years out of the General Assembly, for crying out loud. He is definitely not the résumé candidate, but everybody likes him. He’s inspirational, but that’s a good thing. People want to think that the world can be better than it is, that the future can be better than the past, and that’s where he’s good.”

It takes less than an hour after the caucuses wrap up in Iowa for Obama to be declared the winner. A bearded man wearing a puffy blue coat dotted with “Standing with Obama” stickers shouts, to no one in particular, over a noisy crowd, drawing applause from delighted spectators inside Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines:
“Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. Barack Obama will be. . . .”
As he shouts, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin watches, soaking in the jubilant scene. The senior Illinois senator, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, smiles broadly. “This is a dream come true,” Durbin tells Illinois Times. “When I sat down with Barack a year ago and talked about getting in this race, this was our dream: that he would win the Iowa caucus. It’s a moment in history that an African-American candidate prevailed in such a strong field. I think it’s the beginning of a great race for president of the United States.”
Asked to predict whether Obama will be serving alongside him in the Senate next year, Durbin says: “I think Barack is going to the White House.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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