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The Senator's Humble Beginning

Instead, Obama did a news conference in Moline, Ill., where he said the president's budget proposal would hurt veterans. He did a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a children's hospital in Chicago. He lamented at the confirmation hearing for Veterans Affairs Secretary-designate Jim Nicholson that "Illinois' disability pay compensation system is broken."

All perfect, unglamorous, unheralded stuff! And there are press releases to prove it.

Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama at work on Capitol Hill. "This is not a glamorous existence. I didn't expect it to be," he says, an attitude that draws approval from his colleagues. (Melina Mara - The Washington Post)

Obama hosted "town meetings" in Lockport, Waukegan, Evergreen Park, Springfield, Woodstock, Naperville, Kankakee and Rock Falls. In Naperville, Obama joked to a crowd of 1,000 constituents that his Senate colleagues gave him a toothbrush on the first day and made him clean a latrine.

Obama was the only member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations who sat through an entire day's hearing on Iraq -- a feat noted by committee chairman Richard Lugar. "Now let the record show that Senator Obama has been here from the beginning of the hearing," Lugar said to laughter, according to a transcript of the hearing (provided by Obama's staff). "And I appreciate your patience, Senator."

Obama is sitting in his new office in the basement of the Dirksen Building, which has not yet been re-christened the "Obama Building," although it's still early. "I'll leave that unanswered," he says, grinning. No trips to New Hampshire or Iowa, either, for what it's worth.

His basement office suits his campaign for workhorse status -- remote, unfurnished and windowless. It befits the senator who is 99th in seniority, and who likes to remind you that he's 99th in seniority. (And that he would be 100th in seniority, except that Illinois is a bigger state than Colorado, whose freshman senator, Democrat Ken Salazar, gets to be 100th instead.)

Obama is a few minutes late for an interview because he got caught up at a White House ceremony to mark Black History Month. He would have been on time, he says. But as he was plotting his "escape," Obama realized that his driver, David Katz, had never been to the White House, so he took him back into the reception. This is one of those small gestures that aren't so small when you're a celebrity.

"I told him it cost me 15 more pictures," Obama says. Even in jest, this is a rare instance where Obama lets slip with something that could be construed as immodest: volunteering a description of his celebrity force field, so big it breaches the White House.

No, Obama clarifies, this really wasn't such a big deal. "It wasn't like Laura was saying, 'Hey Barack.' "

Obama comes forth with all the right and humble bromides: "I'm here to do a job," "I've been elected to improve people's lives," "Everyone's been incredibly gracious."

And such.

"This is not a glamorous existence," Obama says. "I didn't expect it to be." He has the advantage of having been through this adjustment process before, he says, as a state senator in Illinois. It's not as if he's a former governor, accustomed to a big staff, constant attention and a bully pulpit. "I've been through the process of nobody paying attention to what you're doing," Obama says.

"He seems to be keeping his head down and doing everything right," says Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), a celebrity senator from the outset of his 42-year career.

Colleagues are always quick to notice otherwise, says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. They did when Al Gore, the son of a senator himself, was elected in 1984 and spoke out on high-profile issues such as arms control. He then ran for president in 1988, at age 39.

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