- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CHICAGO | The skinny kid with the funny name will forever be a part of history.

The crowd that gathered Tuesday night to catch a glimpse of Sen. Barack Obama as he reached a triumphant end to his “improbable” journey was massive. His supporters recognized that they were witnessing a major change in the way Americans view race.

Patrick Kennedy hoisted his arms into the air, unfurling a brightly painted canvas sign with a simple message for the people waiting to hear Mr. Obama give his victory speech: “We have overcome.”

Mr. Kennedy, a white, 35-year-old history teacher, had tears streaming down his face when he explained that he believed he was seeing a moment of national unity.

“It’s been a long struggle,” he said, wiping at his wet eyes and apologizing for his emotional response. “No more fire hoses, no more dogs. As a student of history, to know what our country has gone through to get to this moment. A person of color has ascended to the highest position in the world and been judged not on his color but on his creed. On who he is. This is amazing.”

Mr. Kennedy, one of thousands of early arrivals in Chicago’s Grant Park, described himself as a “Hoosier guy in the heart of Indiana.”

“I don’t think race matters anymore,” he said. “We’ve transcended race and we’ve got a job to do now.”

From the first time he took the stage before the country as an Illinois state senator at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Mr. Obama talked about the “politics of hope.” He added a message of “change” once he started running for president.

“I’m not talking about blind optimism here,” Mr. Obama said at the convention four years ago. “I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

He was lauding the 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, and vice-presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards, but also began to tell his own story.

He won his Senate race that year facing a weak Republican challenger not from Illinois, and began to build a name for himself nationally.

He laughed off speculation that he would run for president in 2008, saying it was far too early.

But his book “The Audacity of Hope” became a bestseller in 2006 and he began drawing record crowds, attracting younger voters and building an organization that later would lead to the largest grass-roots movement in presidential politics. He helped dozens of Democrats win races that year when the party seized control of Congress.

And people started looking for something different as the presidential race began.

For months, Mr. Obama, 47, avoided talking about the historic nature of his bid to become the nation’s first black president, glossing over the fact that he gave his acceptance address on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He rarely talked about his mixed-race heritage, saying he believed the country had moved beyond racial divisions.

But in the final days of what has been a more than 21-month campaign for the White House, he has allowed himself to stress the significance of his candidacy.

“That’s what kept some of our parents and our grandparents going through tough times. … Some of them said maybe I can’t go to college, but if I work hard, maybe my child can go to college. Maybe I can’t own my own business, but if I work really hard, maybe my child can open one of her own. That’s what led immigrants to come from distant lands to these shores for liberty and opportunity, working against great odds to carve a new life for their families in America. That’s what led those who couldn’t vote to march and organize and stand for freedom. Led them to cry out: ‘It may look dark tonight, but if I hold on to hope, tomorrow will be brighter.’ That’s what this election’s about. That’s the choice we face right now.”

Mr. Obama is “the most famous man in the world,” said Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a liberal think tank.

When the senator from Illinois announced Jan. 8, 2007, that he was opening a presidential exploratory committee, many scoffed that he was going up against a titan.

Pundits proclaimed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was the inevitable Democratic nominee and suggested that he was a weak-kneed opponent against an entrenched machine built by a former president.

By running a largely positive, Internet-heavy campaign fueled by small donations from the Obama coalition, he was able to slowly outmaneuver a top political foe.

Over the course of the campaign, Mr. Obama forged a coalition of anti-war Democrats anxious about sending a Clinton back to the White House, young people and Republicans. They helped Mr. Obama dominate the caucuses and accumulate delegates in a race that lasted until the very last state contest, on June 3.

Mr. Obama, born of a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, treaded lightly on the issue of race throughout the campaign.

Civil rights leaders, such as former presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were lukewarm to Mr. Obama; pundits initially asked whether he was “black enough.”

Mr. Obama staked his candidacy largely on his early opposition to what he called a “dumb war” in Iraq. His promise to bring the troops home remains one of his loudest applause lines.

But after winning the nomination and as he faced his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the national security argument melted away amid an economic crisis.

Mr. Obama told voters that his mother sometimes had to rely on food stamps, and he talked about his student loan payments, framing himself as someone who understood that the middle class is the backbone of the nation’s economy and Mr. McCain was a clone of President Bush.

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