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Published: Friday, 2/29/2008

Obama must face political reality before November

LAST Sunday I met a charming individual who may well be the next president of the United States.

With his strikingly thin, almost slight frame, Barack Obama strode confidently into the room of waiting editorial board members here at The Blade. His trademark smile was on full display as his long, tapered fingers reached out to grasp each extended hand.

The astute politician carefully repeated each person's name as introductions were hastily proffered, filing them away for quick reference.

When he finally sat down in front of his newspaper inquisitors, he looked suddenly small. But here he was, this curious phenom, sweeping the nation, attracting huge crowds at every appearance, raising impressive campaign contributions, and accumulating endorsements as fast as falling dominoes.

After meeting with us, the freshman Illinois senator was on to another grand campaign extravaganza at the University of Toledo, where some 10,000 fans had gathered in eager anticipation of his visit. Later I would learn that not even a popular former president of the United States at a simultaneous campaign rally for his wife down the road in Bowling Green could draw an audience anywhere near the size of the Obama crowd.

But as I sat listening to Candidate Obama - who, I hate to admit, was younger than everyone present, save his dutiful aide - I couldn't get my head around why his candidacy was being so widely embraced as the Second Coming. He was intelligent and well-spoken and had a good grasp of the issues he addressed. But I knew that before he walked in the door.

I also knew that his positions on many of the issues closely mirrored those of the other Democrat in the presidential race, Sen. Hillary Clinton. And Senator Obama admitted as much when he touched on a range of subjects from trade agreements, to energy policy, tax breaks, and health care. But his pitch is not that he's so different from Hillary on core Democratic priorities; it's that he's better suited to advance them.

She's a polarizing policy wonk that comes with undeniable baggage. He's a promising newcomer who's managed to ignite a fervor across the land not unlike revivalism.

For someone who burst on the national scene out of nowhere more than three years ago, the seemingly unstoppable Obama bandwagon is astounding.

It's also a bit unsettling for some voters who wonder if the spreading Obamamania is grounded in more than contagious infatuation.

Are the throngs flocking to experience the rock-star fascination of his campaign events more enamored of the idea of youthful difference than with its practical application at the highest pinnacle of power?

Mr. Obama was obviously prepared to answer questions about his qualifications to be president, but it was clear he didn't relish the task.

To hear him tell it, all the talk about how his relatively short leap from state senator to presidential contender left him less prepared for the job than others was utterly without base.

He's been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for three years. He's lived overseas, been exposed to different cultures. And what he said about Iraq's being a colossal mistake before the pre-emptive invasion was ever launched has been completely borne out. Besides, he asked me in so many words, how do you explain the runaway success of my campaign if I weren't perceived as a qualified leader?

I told him I couldn't. Most of us had never witnessed anything close to the phenomenal response his campaign was generating after winning 11 straight primaries and caucuses.

The Obama factor turned presidential politics into a whole new ball game in 2008, and I'm not alone in being hard-pressed to explain why.

Yet, after covering and commenting on several presidential elections, I know there's a point in every race, long before November ballots are cast, when political reality steps in and separates the winners and losers.

Eventually, only the candidate who makes an intangible connection with us in a bold, believable way will pull away from the pack and win the privilege to lead.

Frankly, I had hoped this time it would be a woman. If any female has the brains and background to mount a serious challenge for the White House, it is Hillary Clinton.

But she faces such a built-in bias against electing a woman president that her campaign apparently can't overcome it on the strength of her personal appeal or that of her husband.

No doubt Barack Obama will encounter the built-in biases of those who don't want a black president.

But he's tapped into a deep well of support pushing for a historic break from the past that may be strong enough to make his race and paper rsum irrelevant. Then, the confident candidate says, the overriding importance of his ideas will carry the day and the election.

Maybe. But first he has to win Ohio.



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