The Fresh Face

First-term Senator Barack Obama has the charisma and the ambition to run for President. But, as Joe Klein reports from the campaign trail, he's not quite ready to answer the tough questions

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It is 9 A.M. on a fresh, sunny Saturday in Rockford, Ill., and nearly a thousand people have gathered in the gymnasium at Rock Valley College to participate in a town meeting with their Senator, Barack Obama. It is an astonishingly large crowd for a beautiful Saturday morning, but Obama--whose new book, The Audacity of Hope, is excerpted starting on page 52--has become an American political phenomenon in what seems about a nanosecond, and the folks are giddy with anticipation. "We know he's got the charisma," says Bertha McEwing, who has lived in Rockford for more than 50 years. "We want to know if he's got the brains." Just then there is a ripple through the crowd, then gasps, cheers and applause as Obama lopes into the gym with a casual, knees-y stride. "Missed ya," he says, moving to the microphone, and he continues greeting people over raucous applause. "Tired of Washington."

There's a sly hipster syncopation to his cadence, "Been stuck there for a while." But the folksiness pretty much disappears when he starts answering questions. Obama's actual speaking style is quietly conversational, low in rhetoric-saturated fat; there is no harrumph to him. About halfway through the hour-long meeting, a middle-aged man stands up and says what seems to be on everyone's mind, with appropriate passion: "Congress hasn't done a damn thing this year. I'm tired of the politicians blaming each other. We should throw them all out and start over!"

"Including me?" the Senator asks.

A chorus of n-o-o-o-s. "Not you," the man says. "You're brand new." Obama wanders into a casual disquisition about the sluggish nature of democracy. The answer is not even remotely a standard, pretaped political response. He moves through some fairly arcane turf, talking about how political gerrymandering has led to a generation of politicians who come from safe districts where they don't have to consider the other side of the debate, which has made compromise--and therefore legislative progress--more difficult. "That's why I favored Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal last year, a nonpartisan commission to draw the congressional-district maps in California. Too bad it lost." The crowd is keeping up with Obama, listening closely as he segues into a detailed discussion of the federal budget. Eventually, he realizes he has been filibustering and apologizes to the crowd for "making a speech." No one seems to care, since Obama is doing something pretty rare in latter-day American politics: he is respecting their intelligence. He's a liberal, but not a screechy partisan. Indeed, he seems obsessively eager to find common ground with conservatives. "It's such a relief after all the screaming you see on TV," says Chuck Sweeny, political editor of the Rockford Register Star. "Obama is reaching out. He's saying the other side isn't evil. You can't imagine how powerful a message that is for an audience like this."

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