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Obama Forged Political Mettle In Illinois Capitol

Obama paid a political price for missing an important vote on a crime package. That was during the 1999 Christmas holidays, as Obama -- who describes himself as suffering from "chronic restlessness" -- embarked on an ill-fated attempt to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, a popular Chicago Democrat.

When the legislature was called into special session to vote on gun control, Obama and his family were visiting his grandmother in Hawaii. His 18-month-old daughter, Malia, was sick and unable to fly. The measure was narrowly defeated, and Rush criticized him. Obama lost by 31 points, his only electoral defeat.

"I take my legislative responsibilities extremely seriously," Obama said after the measure fell five votes short. "In the midst of a congressional race, I'm well aware of the potential risk of missing a vote, even if that vote doesn't wind up making the difference on a particular piece of legislation. But at some point, family has to come first."

Obama was a steady supporter of abortion rights, said Pam Sutherland, Planned Parenthood's chief lobbyist in Springfield, although he caught flak from the political left in 2004 as he ran for the U.S. Senate.

The reason was a series of votes on such issues as late-term abortion and parental notification when Obama voted "present" instead of yea or nay. He said he was not tacking toward the center, but an opponent in the Democratic primary sent mailers portraying a rubber duck and proclaiming, "He ducked!"

Obama said his votes helped provide cover for other legislators. Sutherland said the votes were part of a strategy designed with Obama's help to deny Republicans easy campaign sound bites.

"The Republicans loved to put out legislation all the time that would put their opponents in a trick box during the elections," Sutherland said. "It was a strong statement to those who promoted bad legislation that we're not going to take this; you can't use this against us."

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.

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