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Obama Making a Name for Himself

Times Staff Writer

As he heads toward the cattle barns at the Kane County Fair in deep Republican country, Democrat Barack Obama cannot take more than three steps without being swarmed by autograph-seeking fans.

The sunburned farmers and rural residents are mostly from towns too small to warrant boldface on a road map. Munching fried steak on a stick, farmer Darryl Collins strains to hear the U.S. Senate candidate’s every word.

“Can you sign my T-shirt?” asks Collins, 19, trying to speak above the rumble of animals and excited voters. “Or maybe my cow?”

Obama, a state senator representing South Chicago, is happy to sign a scrap of paper for Collins, and the farmer is giddy to get a souvenir of what’s become an outright odd political situation.

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Just a year ago, few people in Obama’s own constituency would have recognized this lanky man with the baritone voice. Now, even in a county that supported President Bush by a large margin in 2000, voters are embracing Obama.

And tonight, Obama will deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“Everyone in this country is going to know who Barack Obama is,” said Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Obama shot to prominence when the Illinois Republican Party imploded in recent months, making him essentially a shoo-in for the Senate. If Obama wins, he’ll be the third black senator since Reconstruction.

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So who is this 42-year-old son of a Kenyan economist and a Kansas-born anthropologist, who was born in balmy Hawaii and raised in the sprawl of Jakarta?

“Barack is either the smartest politician we’ve seen in years, or the luckiest,” said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “The reality? It’s probably a bit of both.”

Illinois Republicans find themselves in the awkward spot of being without a candidate to oppose Obama, after Jack Ryan dropped out last month because divorce records alleged he tried to force his wife to visit sex clubs. Two former Illinois governors, two state senators, several wealthy businessmen and former Bears coach Mike Ditka have declined to run against Obama in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

The Democratic Party has piled on, helping add $4 million to Obama’s $10-million war chest in the last three months.

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With Republicans narrowly controlling the Senate, an Obama victory would shift the chamber that much closer to a Democratic majority. The Democrats plan to feature him in some of its national advertising to boost black voter turnout this November, particularly in several key Midwestern states.

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.

Obama has been in great demand since getting the key convention assignment: He’s appeared on political talk shows, granted dozens of newspaper interviews and been a fixture at political rallies.

As keynote speaker, he’ll join an illustrious line of politicians such as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards, a former treasurer of Texas who later became governor.

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Obama is a bit taken aback by his swift rise. “I haven’t changed,” he said. “It’s the situation that’s changed. I’m still just me.”

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Home for Obama is the wealthy Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park.

Here, in a four-bedroom apartment, he and his wife, Michelle, are raising two young daughters on a street lined with gnarled trees and aging brownstones in South Chicago. The street is home to gleaming BMWs and minivans from which mothers haul out youth baseball jerseys.

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But he is just as at home wandering around the city’s poor neighborhoods, where he spent years working with residents to improve conditions in the public housing projects.

Obama’s understanding of poverty stems from his youth.

His mother, Ann, was born in a small farm community in Kansas, where the family line traces back to ramshackle homesteads.

His father, also named Barack, was a foreign-exchange student from Kenya whose family lives near Lake Victoria. They too were farmers, working the land and protecting the cattle from wild animals and tribal raids.

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A scholarship took Obama Sr. to Honolulu. A desire to explore new worlds and job opportunities brought Ann and her family to the tropical state. The two met and soon married, much to their families’ horror.

“My father’s family sent letters, saying that he had disgraced the family by marrying a white woman,” said Obama, whose parents have since died.

When Obama Sr. headed to Harvard in the mid-1960s -- and later returned to Kenya -- he left behind Ann and a toddler. The couple later divorced. Before Barack was old enough to go to school, his mother had remarried, to an Indonesian oil manager.

They moved to Jakarta in 1964. Obama was barely 4. But his memories of that time, detailed in his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” are stark and clear.

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“You cannot live in Jakarta and not have it leave a lasting impression on you,” Obama said.

He remembers child paupers on the streets, too tired and ill to beg. He recalls guards in front of high-class houses tossing coins into the street, laughing when the poor would dart into traffic for the money.

In 1970, Ann sent her son back to Honolulu to live with his grandparents and attend school.

Though loved, Obama was always aware of racial tension around him: His family was white, as were many of his friends. Like many young people, Obama spent years wrestling with his identity; he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine.

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“It happened. It happens to a lot of young people,” he said. “I learned from my mistakes and moved on.”

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Race is something Barack Obama would love to ignore on the campaign trail. Talk about economics and politics. Talk about anything else. Yet these days, the subject regularly comes up.

Early on a Sunday afternoon, Obama sits inside the Original House of Pancakes in South Chicago. Most of the customers are black, and the chance to see Obama is an unexpected boon.

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As the politician butters his chocolate-chip pancakes, a caterer slips Obama a business card, offering to feed people at his next rally “with the best barbecue that’ll sizzle your tongue, child.” Before he can reach for the syrup, a printer donates downtime on his presses for running off fliers and lawn signs.

After the meal, as Obama makes his way to the exit, some patrons gently probe him about his platform.

He’s pro-labor and has introduced bills that would force drug companies to reveal how much of their marketing costs are paid by consumers. He has pushed legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations in cases of capital crimes.

“There’ve been 200,000 jobs lost in this state since Bush took the White House,” he said. “Overtime rights are being threatened for 8 million workers in this nation. Have you lost a job? Has anyone in your family?”

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The patrons nod slowly. Then, off to the side, a woman quietly asks, “Will you forget us in Washington?”

Obama simply replies, “I will represent everyone in Illinois. Everyone.”

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Obama’s concern with race and class spawned a passion for activism years ago. After graduating from Columbia University, Obama said, he began exploring politics and wondering how to “breach some walls.”

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He sent scores of letters to nonprofit organizations across the country and received one reply: the Developing Communities Project, a church-based social action group in Chicago. For three years, he worked with poor residents in South Side neighborhoods, going with them to City Hall to fight for repairs in housing projects and to push for job development.

Obama left to attend Harvard Law School and, in 1990, was elected the first black president of the school’s law review. The media cited his achievement as a sign of diversity in the stodgy Ivy League world.

“You don’t get to be editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review by affirmative action,” said Chicago attorney Judd Miner, a former co-worker and friend of Obama. “You get it by brilliance.”

Publishers sought out Obama, and he signed a deal to write the autobiography.

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Many students resented the buzz, and the complaints divided along racial lines. Whites were upset about the focus on Obama’s race, while blacks complained that he overlooked other African Americans for top spots at the review.

“He just focused on the work,” said Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard professor who specializes in constitutional law. “All he cared about was bringing about change.”

After graduation, Obama joined a small civil rights law firm in downtown Chicago, taking complaints by victims of housing and workplace discrimination. He also began teaching part time at the University of Chicago’s Law School, in part “to help pay the bills,” said Michelle Obama.

Friends approached him in the mid-1990s, suggesting that he add politics to his resume. He ran for state Senate and was elected in 1996. As the years passed in Springfield, Obama earned the admiration of many, even some Republicans.

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“He’s smart and he’s fair,” said Illinois state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, a Republican who has co-sponsored bills with Obama. “You may not agree with his opinion. But you know he’s always going to be honest.”

Eight years later, Obama sits firmly in the spotlight. His speech, which he wrote longhand on a legal pad, was “finished before all this attention really started,” he said. “If I’d realized this was so big, I might have been nervous.”

Obama knows that, very soon, the hype over his convention speech will be over, leaving him with a little more than three months to campaign. But in the end, the compressed schedule may not matter; the focus of the race is on the disarray of the state Republican Party rather than his positions on issues.

“Who else are you going to vote for?” said Holly Martinez, 33, a mail carrier from Huntley, Ill., who met the candidate at the Kane County Fair. “I’m an independent, and it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if I were a Republican or a Democrat. Barack Obama’s the only one talking.”

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The machinery behind Obama’s campaign isn’t going to stop any time soon, even when the candidate has little to say. And at times, it simply doesn’t matter. The cult of celebrity has kicked in.

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TODAY’S KEY SPEAKERS

Senate Partner

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Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the party patriarch who has addressed the last 11 conventions.

Onetime Rival

Howard Dean, the

former governor of

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Vermont and early front-runner -- until the primaries.

Other Half

Teresa Heinz Kerry, the plainspoken wife of Sen. John F. Kerry, who is expected to be nominated Wednesday.

Off the Trail

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Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who lost to Kerry in the Iowa

caucuses and then bowed out.

Talk of the Town


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