Obama's Ascent

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SAMANTHA APPLETON / AURORA FOR TIME

ROCK STAR Obama, here on Columbus Day in Chicago, draws racially mixed crowds around the state

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In 1990 Obama was the first African American to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review. With that came a glimpse of the challenges ahead. The media adored him, but black students criticized him for not choosing more blacks for top positions.

Meanwhile, Obama met Michelle, the woman who would become his wife, during a summer job at a large firm in Chicago, where she had been designated his attorney mentor. (They have two daughters, ages 3 and 6.) After law school, Obama declined higher-paying offers from big firms and joined a small civil-rights outfit in Chicago. But the partners at Miner, Barnhill & Galland never expected him to stick around. "There aren't many blindingly talented people, and most of them are pains in the ass," says George Galland Jr. "Barack is the whole package."

In 1996 Obama ran for state senate and won. Impatient, he leaped again in 2000, this time challenging four-term U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush. A former Black Panther, Rush ridiculed Obama as a Harvard-educated carpetbagger. Obama got hammered, losing 2 to 1. This year Obama chose a better race—for an open Senate seat. Then he got lucky. In the primary, his millionaire opponent, Blair Hull, was undone by media revelations that his ex-wife had sought a restraining order against him. In the general election, Republican Jack Ryan withdrew after reporters revealed that his ex-wife had complained that he took her to sex clubs. Finally, the state's straggling Republican Party gifted Obama with Keyes as an opponent. Though a powerful speaker, Keyes alienated even conservatives by calling homosexuality "selfish hedonism" and engaging in other such hysterics.

With no serious competition, Obama was free to make friends in the Senate early. His campaign has donated nearly $400,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and state parties with competitive races. The favors will cushion his landing in Washington, as will the affection of many veteran pols. "Obama could be President. There's nothing to stop him," says former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder. There is, however, a rather long list of politicians who have been anointed "America's first black President," from Jesse Jackson to Julian Bond to, well, Wilder. Just three months ago, Details magazine ran a feature story about the "Next, Next President of the United States." His name, according to Details, was Harold Ford Jr.

In 2002 the chosen one was Cory Booker, then a Newark, N.J., city councilman. He ultimately lost a close race against Mayor Sharpe James after Booker was accused of not being "black enough." At the Democratic Convention this summer, Booker walked into the hall and encountered a group of admirers. "One of them said I should be Vice President. I said I thought that might be going a little too far." One woman took out her camera and asked, "Could I take your picture, Mr. Obama?" Booker laughs as he tells the story. "I said, 'Ma'am, there's more than one sexy black man at this convention.'"

For Booker, who plans on challenging James again in 2006, his biggest obstacle has been the entrenched black leadership's resistance to new faces and different ideas. In the Senate, warns Walters, Obama will encounter similar challenges. "He could reach a point where he has some very serious conflict between the agenda of (a potential presidential) ticket and the agenda he's got to carry as the only African American in the Senate," says Walters. Says Rush, who has not fully forgiven Obama's audacious run against him: "In my community, the basic desire is to get a black into the Senate. Once he gets in, we can nudge him along on the path that might be less comfortable for him."

For now, Richard Durbin, the senior Senator from Illinois, counsels Obama to follow the model of Hillary Clinton. As a national figure entering the Senate with more buzz than clout, Clinton did her homework, kept her head down and stayed in tireless contact with her New York constituents. Gradually, her political capital rose. Obama says he plans to ask for her advice. Depending on how the conversation goes, maybe they could wager on the chances of them ever running together for the White House.

—With reporting by David E. Thigpen/Chicago and Jeannie McCabe/Honolulu

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