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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

A star is born

Barack Obama was barely 30 seconds into his allotted 15 minutes of fame, and delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston were already touting him as a presidential player in 2008.

Irrational exuberance perhaps, but that's what happens when an authentic political phenomenon strolls onto the national stage with little warning. This year, it's the self-described "skinny guy with the funny name," a state senator from Chicago who is running, so far unopposed, for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

Mr. Obama, who is 42, has all the ingredients for political stardom: an intriguing personal background, stellar education, and a meteoric rise in politics.

His father was a black economist from Kenya and his mother was a white anthropologist from Kansas. His parents met and married in Hawaii but soon divorced, and Barack spent several years with his mother and stepfather in Jakarta, Indonesia, before he was sent back to Honolulu to live with his grandparents. He is a graduate of Columbia University in New York.

Mr. Obama became a community organizer in the housing projects of Chicago's poor South Side but left in his late 20s to attend Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Then it was back to Chicago, where he was elected eight years ago to the Illinois Senate, and where even his Republican opponents concede that he's honest. As one reporter observed, "Party officials point out that Obama has been married to the same woman for more than a decade, committed no felonies, and avoided major scandal - no small accomplishment in Illinois politics."

Convention watchers found that he's a dynamite speaker - charismatic and engaging without too much flamboyance - and unafraid to take on hot topics directly.

Before the delegates, he urged parents to "turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

On the war in Iraq, he said, "When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going, and to never, ever, go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world."

The Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Jack Ryan, self-destructed in a divorce scandal earlier this year, and GOP officials haven't found anyone willing to take on Mr. Obama, and may not now that his keynote speech to the Democratic convention catapulted him to national notice.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, the GOP incumbent, remarked the other day that taking the Republican nomination against Mr. Obama would be "akin to accepting a cancer transplant."

Assuming a position of both national prominence and electoral invincibility would be heady stuff for any politician, and Mr. Obama already is being touted for everything from a role model to young blacks to the White House. Wisely, though, he is not getting too caught up in the hoopla, reminding everyone that "I just need to win the Senate right now."

Where he goes from here will determine whether Mr. Obama is a fresh-faced flash in the pan or merely in the booster stage of a soaring political career.

The vanilla U.S. Senate, which has had just three black members in about 125 years, badly needs some diversity if the nation is to mature politically. But more than that, it needs members of any race, creed, or color with the talent and energy of Barack Obama.



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