A Series of Fortunate Events

Obama gathers his thoughts before speaking at the Iowa First Congressional District Democratic Caucus workshop in Peosta, Iowa, in July 14.
Obama gathers his thoughts before speaking at the Iowa First Congressional District Democratic Caucus workshop in Peosta, Iowa, in July 14. (Jeremy Portje - Associated Press)
By Liza Mundy
Sunday, August 12, 2007

In the summer of 2002, a little-known Illinois state legislator named Barack Obama thought he saw the political opening he'd been looking for. It was a long shot, a flier -- a race for the U.S. Senate against a sitting Republican. Obama believed he could beat the incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald. The immediate and, in some ways, harder challenge would be getting the Democratic nomination.

Obama was about to turn 41. An attorney and law lecturer at the University of Chicago, he had been elected to the state Senate in 1996, but had been chafing for some time at the limitations of legislating in Springfield. In 2000, he'd overreached by challenging former Black Panther Bobby Rush for the seat Rush held in the U.S. House of Representatives. It had been a disastrous bid, but understandable given that in Illinois, as around the country, paths to higher office for black politicians are few.

But this new opportunity looked, to him, feasible. In 1992, another Chicago politician, Carol Moseley Braun, had demonstrated that it was possible for an African American to win a statewide U.S. Senate primary, as long as there were at least two white Democrats to split the white vote. And several were already lining up to take on Fitzgerald.

There was just one problem, and it was a big one: Moseley Braun was talking about running herself. Only the second African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction, she had lost to Fitzgerald in 1998, in part as a result of allegations, never proved, that she had misused campaign funds. After the loss, she had been appointed U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. But now she was back in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that surrounds the University of Chicago, where Obama also lived. If she did run, there would be two credible black Democrats in the primary -- one far better known than the other.

"Our bases overlapped so much -- not just that she was African American, but that she came out of the progressive wing of the party . . . and our donor bases would have been fairly similar," says Obama, who also needed support from liberal whites. "So it would have been difficult, I think, to mobilize the entire coalition that was required for me to run."

During the second half of 2002, Obama quietly hired staffers, putting a team together and planning his campaign. But he couldn't announce until Moseley Braun made up her mind. Lobbying her seemed likely to backfire. "She's a very independent person," says Obama's campaign manager at the time, Dan Shomon, and "the view was to let her decide on her own."

And then, just after the new year, news reached them that Moseley Braun had made her decision. She was running.

For president of the United States.

And with that, the first cherry had clicked into place: one in an extraordinary series that would hit -- bing bing bing bing -- in the jackpot that for the past five years has characterized Barack Obama's career. If Moseley Braun had run for her old seat, Obama would not be where he is now: sitting on an upholstered couch in a busy office in the Hart Senate Office Building, the only African American member of the U.S. Senate and a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Legs crossed, suit jacket off, Obama readily acknowledges Moseley Braun's decision "was another example of the stars aligning" to land him in what seemed, not so long ago, a laughably improbable spot.

Had he been unable to run for the Senate, he says, "I would probably have stepped out of politics for a while." That he didn't step out -- that he stepped in to the degree that he has -- is partly due to the existence, at a pivotal moment, of a politician who had more hubris than he did. Even more audacity, you could say, and even more hope.

The run of luck set off by Moseley Braun's ill-fated presidential run helps explain how Obama has managed to do the political equivalent of zero to 100 mph in 60 seconds. Four years ago, the name "Barack Obama" might register a single hit on the Nexis news database, on a good day. These days, there are about 300 news items that mention Obama each day. His poll numbers aren't as high as those of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spent decades building her political profile. But his campaign outstripped Clinton's in fundraising in the second quarter of 2007.

"It's like he cut in line," says Tony Bullock, a former Hill staffer and vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. "He's become a household name far faster than anyone who doesn't have a hit movie."

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