Everybody wants a piece of Barack Obama. Ahead by a mile in his race for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, the youthful state senator with huge ambitions is taking his show on the road to help Democrats from the bottom of the ticket to the very top.
In the past week, Obama has mailed checks totaling $260,000 to Senate candidates in 13 states, including $53,000 to the do-or-die campaign of Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). He donated $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $150,000 to party organizations in key states, including Florida, Wisconsin and Colorado.
Carrying his verbal assault on President Bush beyond state lines, Obama will fly to Los Angeles this week for a Democratic fundraiser and address rallies in Colorado and Nevada for John F. Kerry. In a close presidential race where turnout could prove decisive, Obama said in an interview that he is talking with Kerry advisers about where he can be most effective in the campaign's final days.
"Turnout is huge," Obama said after a Saturday morning rally in the hard-fought presidential battleground of Wisconsin. "If there are selective things that we can do that can be helpful, then we want to do them. The Kerry people are still making determinations as to what states remain in play. Safe to say we will probably have a couple more travel days this month."
Obama, 43, is a singular phenomenon. Until recently an obscure state senator from Chicago who had lost his only race for Congress, he dazzled Democrats with his keynote address to the party's national convention in July. At home, he defeated six contenders in the primary, and polls show him with an insurmountable 45-point lead over conservative Republican Alan Keyes.
He also happens to have raised more than $14 million, said Obama's communications director Robert Gibbs, who bears the uncommonly relaxed look of a spokesman who rarely has to parry bad news. On a day that started in Milwaukee and ended in downstate Illinois, Obama was trailed by reporters from three national newspapers, National Public Radio, Time magazine and, in the clearest sign of his transformation, Vogue.
"He's like a rock star," said theater student Lily Emerson, 21, as fans mobbed Obama after an afternoon rally in Decatur, Ill.
In Alton, Ill., where Obama was outpolled in the primary, he signed scores of autographs and posed for dozens of photographs with giddy strangers, draping a long arm around their shoulders and flipping the switch on his radiant smile. Words of thanks and encouragement slipped smoothly from this lips.
"There's so much in my heart," one woman said to him, earnestly clutching his hands. "Make me proud to be an American again."
Obama said, "You're going to make me tear up," and he hugged her.
The star power translated well in Milwaukee, a short hop north along Lake Michigan from Obama's home base. Gwen Moore, a black Democrat running for Congress, introduced him to a crowd of about 800 people in terms now familiar to him.
"He's the future of the Democratic Party," Moore said. "He's all of us."
Obama took the stage and launched into a riff about his Kenyan father, his Kansan mother and the name few knew how to pronounce. He dropped in references to his Harvard education, his attendance at church and his two young girls.
Then he launched into Bush.
"Everybody here knows somebody who's stubborn and wrong all the time. Why would you elect somebody like that president?" Obama called out. "I mean, it's one thing that somebody's wrong and they know they're wrong. Or it's one thing if they're arrogant but they're right all the time. But when they're arrogant and wrong all the time, that's a problem."
Connecting his argument to what he described as common American values, Obama criticized Attorney General John D. Ashcroft for "rounding up" terrorism suspects and denying them access to lawyers. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice.
"We don't just inherit the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children," Obama said. "So we have an obligation to give them clean air and clean water and a Constitution that's not poked full of holes. And a foreign policy that creates respect for Americans in the world, so that we don't have to feel when we carry an American passport that that automatically makes us a target."
Obama reminded his audience that Wisconsin, which Al Gore won by just 5,708 votes in 2000, is where the controversial ads challenging Kerry's record as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam began. He said the time to start getting out the vote is now: "We've got to mobilize Wisconsin."
The faithful lined up by the dozen to volunteer.
"He's a godsend," said union organizer Robert Greely, 45, who put off lawn mowing to see Obama. "He's a different politician, in that he understands the total picture. All races, all incomes. He's uplifting."
This is heady stuff for Obama, who gives every impression of keeping his feet on the ground. He acknowledged having a healthy ego but said he is hardest on himself when he feels he has screwed up. Barbs from opponents and critics bother him less.
All but assured of victory, he is bracing for the attention and celebrity of being the Senate's only black member. Among those he intends to consult is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he said, because she knows how to balance "some of the pressures of celebrity with good work."
Wherever Obama goes, he is treated as if he were a high-tech company on the eve of an initial public offering. The cheering crowds are like investors, certain they are adding a winner to their portfolio. Asked in Milwaukee, as he so frequently is, about talk of becoming the country's first black president, Obama did not deny his interest.
What he said instead was, "That kind of hype is premature."