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It’s official: Obama dives into ’08 race

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Barack Obama formally launched his bid for president Saturday, his eyes on history and feet rooted in the frigid Midwest as he pledged a new generation of leadership to end the war in Iraq and banish “the smallness of our politics.”

In a speech that recalled his soaring remarks to the 2004 Democratic National Convention -- the speech that launched his political rocket flight -- Obama sought to set himself apart from the large Democratic field of White House hopefuls, and from the Washington establishment he joined two years ago as a senator representing Illinois.

He cited a familiar litany of woes: poverty, underperforming schools, soaring healthcare costs, hard-pressed wage earners, reliance on foreign oil, and the Iraq war. But the larger problem, he suggested, was a rancid political system that perpetuated those ills instead of solving them.

“What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points,” Obama said.

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“The time for that kind of politics is over,” he added. “It’s time to turn the page.”

More than 15,000 people showed up for Obama’s announcement, police said. The crowd formed a small sea of covered heads -- temperatures were in the low teens -- at the base of the old state Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln served, orated and, finally, lay in state.

The 45-year-old senator’s announcement -- his breath visible in the cold -- marked a fully committed candidacy that, if successful, would make him the nation’s first black president.

Obama is generally regarded as one of the top three Democratic White House hopefuls -- behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, ahead of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But Obama is also among the least experienced of the more than a dozen candidates running on both sides, a political phenom whose success to date grows more out of style than accomplishment.

Conceding “a certain presumptuousness, a certain audacity” in his announcement, Obama suggested that the brevity of his stint in Washington should not be viewed as a demerit. “I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change,” he said, offering his seven years as a state senator in Springfield as an exemplar of the politics he wished to practice.

“We learned to disagree without being disagreeable,” he said, “that so long as we’re willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.”

Addressing the war in Iraq, Obama offered one of the few policy specifics of his 20-minute speech, drawing an approving roar from the crowd. “It’s time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else’s civil war,” he said, calling for U.S. combat troops to leave by March 2008.

He also drew a contrast with Edwards and Clinton, who both voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Edwards has apologized for his vote; Clinton, campaigning Saturday in New Hampshire, reiterated that she would not have voted the same way knowing what she does today, but refused to say she was wrong.

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Obama was blunt: “I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake.”

The site he chose for his announcement was steeped in symbolism. Lincoln not only served as a state representative in the old Capitol, but in 1858 delivered his famous antislavery speech that quoted from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Obama invoked that speech in declaring his candidacy and returned to Lincoln and his legacy throughout his own speech -- referring at one point to the inspirational “life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who showed the power of words and conviction to overcome political division. The description, plainly made to invite comparison, drew appreciative laughs from the crowd.

At another point, Obama echoed the words of a more recent president, John F. Kennedy, who also sought the White House as a relatively young man with a short political resume. Citing a succession of generations that achieved great things -- settling the West, ending slavery, overcoming the Great Depression, sending a man to the moon -- Obama said, “Today we are called once more -- and it is time for our generation to answer that call.”

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Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, made no mention of his upbringing, which was mainly in Hawaii. He spoke only briefly of his time as a community activist in Chicago before launching his political career a decade ago. He also made little mention of President Bush or his policies, beyond a paragraph condemning the last six years and Bush’s penchant, as Obama described it, to distract people from the administration’s failures and “blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.”

The largely uplifting tone contributed to a feeling that, whatever the outcome in 2008, Obama’s announcement deserved a place in history.

Foster Ware III drove about an hour from Bloomington, Ill., to attend Obama’s speech with his wife, their three small children and a family friend. He doubted any of the youngsters would remember the occasion, Ware said, but as an African American he wanted to tell them someday that they had been at the event and to urge them “to always dream and never let anyone kill that dream.”

“I hate hearing, ‘Is the country ready for a black president?’ ” said Ware, a 31-year-old pharmaceutical salesman. “If not now, when? If not him, who? I think it’s a perfect opportunity for the country to rally behind Obama.”

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From Illinois, the freshly declared candidate traveled next door to Iowa, which opens the presidential nominating process with its precinct caucuses scheduled for January.

In a Cedar Rapids gymnasium, he faced another enthusiastic crowd (which applauded him at one point for removing his suit jacket). He offered a condensed version of his Illinois announcement speech and fielded a handful of questions.

One of them -- how does he deal with so much adulation? -- brought a smile and a quip. “I hope all the questions are like that,” he said.

Turning serious, Obama acknowledged he was new to practicing politics at the presidential level and conceded, “We don’t know how I will deal, my family will deal with the rigors of this campaign. Part of the reason to do town hall meetings like this one is for people to lift the hood and kick the tires and see what this guy is actually about.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sen. Barack Obama

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Party: Democratic

Age: 45

Residence: Chicago

Experience: U.S. senator, 2005-present; Illinois state senator, 1997-2004; constitutional law professor, University of Chicago

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Education: Law degree, Harvard University; bachelor’s degree in political science, Columbia University

Family: Wife, Michelle; daughters Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5

Source: Associated Press


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