So Far, and So Fast

By Dan Balz
Friday, December 14, 2007

It was a year ago this week that Sen. Barack Obama visited New Hampshire for the first time, a political phenomenon and a novice in national politics promoting a book called "The Audacity of Hope."

The presidential campaign he launched two months later could be called the same thing. Just three years removed from the Illinois Senate, Obama threatens to upend Hillary Clinton in Iowa -- and if he does, he will pose a serious challenge in the Democratic nominating contest.

Obama is a singular candidate, cerebral in a profession in which instinct is often prized over intellect. He can be cool when circumstances call for hot, and at times he has left audiences more underwhelmed than satisfied. Yet the crowds keep coming, in numbers and with an enthusiasm not often seen in the early stages of the presidential campaign -- 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 strong. And that was before he recruited Oprah Winfrey to barnstorm with him last weekend in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Obama's easygoing manner masks enormous self-confidence and driving ambition that have propelled him up the political ladder with astonishing speed. Like Clinton's, his campaign is history in the making -- he would be the nation's first African American president. But his candidacy seems to be defined as much by other factors as it is by race.

He is not of the civil rights generation -- he was born in 1961 -- and at times in his campaign when this son of a Kenyan father and white American mother has been forced to answer whether he is black enough. His appeal is both generational and aspirational. He seeks to turn the page on the baby-boom generation's grip on U.S. politics -- a not-so-subtle dig at both the Bushes and the Clintons -- and he promises to end the stalemated politics of polarization that have defined Washington for a decade or more.

Those are lofty promises, and they raise in critics' minds the question of whether anyone, but particularly someone with such limited experience on the national stage, can possibly deliver on them. Obama shocked the Clinton campaign and much of the political establishment by raising more money for the primaries in the first quarter of the year than the vaunted Clinton network -- and followed that up with a second-quarter performance that beat her again. By the end of the third quarter, he had raised about $75 million for his campaign. He turned his opposition to the Iraq war into a weapon against Clinton, who had voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion. What good is Washington experience, he asked, if those with more years in the capital supported a war that should have been neither approved nor waged?

But through much of the year, he struggled -- to find a voice, to flesh out his policy agenda, to stand his ground in debates, to overcome Clinton's lead in the national and many state polls. He promised to challenge Clinton, then held back, frustrating his own supporters and raising questions about his toughness.

In the first Democratic debate, he seemed to hesitate when asked how he would respond if al-Qaeda hit the United States again -- and the Clinton campaign pounced. Clinton's team pounced again when he said he would meet the leaders of hostile nations without preconditions. Clinton called him "irresponsible and, frankly, naive."

But in the final quarter of the year, his campaign has gained fresh momentum. Obama's speech to the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic dinner in Iowa in early November brought a surge of energy.

His advisers long have hoped that he will be able to do in this campaign what he did when he sought his party's nomination for Senate in 2004, which was to peak at exactly the right moment and to rush past the opposition. His rivals are far tougher than those he faced in his Senate bid, which is why the next weeks will show just how far he has come in such a short time.

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