Election 2008

Sen. Obama Lingers in Iowa Ahead of Votes

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There are less than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, which will mark the first actual voting in this long presidential campaign. And Sen. Barack Obama, who trails Sen. Hillary Clinton as frontrunner, is in Iowa urging voters to sign on to his movement.


In this long presidential campaign, there are now less than a hundred days until the first actual vote. For Barack Obama, the Iowa contest is key - the chance to challenge Hillary Clinton for frontrunner status in the fight for the Democratic nomination.

All this week, Obama stopped in Iowa communities - large and small - urging voters to sign on to his movement.

And NPR's David Greene spent this week following Obama.

DAVID GREENE: Wherever he goes, Barack Obama loves to tell a story. It's about a day over the summer when he was tired from campaigning. He was drenched from the rain and he stopped at a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. Only a couple dozen people were there, but someone caught his attention.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I looked back and there's this little woman. She's about 5'2, 5'3. She's about 60 years old, got an outfit, She's got a big church hat on.

GREENE: And she was loud. She started saying this chant: Fired up, ready to go.

Sen. OBAMA: She'd say fired up, and everybody says fired up. And she says ready to go, and - says, ready to go. And my staff and I, we didn't know what to do. We're sort of standing there, just kind of looking around. Here's the thing, though. After a minute or two, I'm feeling kind of fired up, and I'm feeling like I'm ready to go, so I joined in the chant.

GREENE: Obama recounted the story this week inside a barn in the town of Washington, Iowa. And he said the point is if one woman in South Carolina can lift the spirits in a room, one voice can help change a country or even the world. One of the Iowans listening to Obama was a retired school teacher named Sharon Merks(ph).

Ms. SHARON MERKS (Retired School Teacher): I think he's a very impressive speaker, and I think his idea that we have to have hope is excellent.

GREENE: But Merks says she's just not sure the country will rally around Obama's methods.

What do you think he has to do to move the polls?

Ms. MERKS: I'm not sure. Maybe walk on water. I don't know.

GREENE: So you think it's going to be tough?

Ms. MERKS: I do think it'll be tough.

GREENE: And the Obama campaign knows that. In speeches and in an ad campaign, Obama asks people to believe, not just in his ability to change Washington, but in their own. Voters across Iowa said they loved hearing him this week. Still, not everyone was expressing that sense of personal purpose Obama is looking for.

David Dickie(ph), a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, saw Obama at an event on his campus. When it was time to ask the candidate questions, Dickie stood up.

Mr. DAVID DICKIE (University of Iowa): How do you actually think that you can unify the country when there's all these wedge issues, specifically on the wedge issues such as abortion and gun control and gay marriage?

Sen. OBAMA: Yeah.

Mr. DICKIE: And then how do you also compromise with people who refuse to take any troops out, you know? How are you actually going to reunify us?

Sen. OBAMA: Good. Well, it's a great question.

GREENE: Obama gave a long answer that included looking back to when he was a state senator.

Sen. OBAMA: I have the experience of bringing people together to get things done like I did in the Illinois legislature providing health insurance to kids who didn't have it, or by fixing a death penalty system that was broken.

GREENE: Afterwards, Dickie sounded satisfied if not inspired.

Mr. DICKIE: I don't know. He didn't get too specific, but it was pretty good.

GREENE: What message do you leave with from this event? What did you hear from Obama, if you were to sum it up?

Mr. DICKIE: I don't know. Just some hope that we can try to get along and try to find common ground - just a little bit of hope. Other than that, I don't really know.

GREENE: Rebecca Cowall(ph), a dance history professor, said Obama has the potential to change how the U.S. is seen by the world.

Ms. REBECCA COWALL (Dance History Professor): The day he's elected, the presentation of the states of American will change. For me, I think that's one of the most powerful messages that he can present.

GREENE: Cowall said she likes Obama.

Mr. COWALL: When I come to events like this, I feel more and more sure. But when I'm tracking the national polls and also trying to weigh Obama's electibility, I think I get concerned about that.

GREENE: So Cowall said it's not Obama she doubts, it's whether there's a movement.

Mr. COWALL: I would like to believe that a black man could be elected president, and I would like to believe that somebody with an idealistic message and a message of hope could be elected in this country. And I'm just not quite sure, as intriguing and attractive as that message might sound to voters across the country, if people will actually go to the ballot box and vote.

GREENE: There are still weeks for people to decide, of course, and Iowans said that's plenty of time for Obama to make something special happen.

David Greene, NPR News, Decorah, Iowa.

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Obama's Loss May Have Aided White House Bid

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Barack Obama, photographed for a campaign in 2000. i

This was the face the public saw as Barack Obama ran for Congress in 2000. Marc PoKempner/Barack Obama for Congress 2000 Campaign hide caption

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Barack Obama, photographed for a campaign in 2000.

This was the face the public saw as Barack Obama ran for Congress in 2000.

Marc PoKempner/Barack Obama for Congress 2000 Campaign
The Obama family from a 2000 campaign flyer. i

Obama and his wife Michelle with their daughter, Malia Ann, on a campaign flyer highlighting his goals for education, crime, health care, economic justice and equal pay. Obama for Congress hide caption

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The Obama family from a 2000 campaign flyer.

Obama and his wife Michelle with their daughter, Malia Ann, on a campaign flyer highlighting his goals for education, crime, health care, economic justice and equal pay.

Obama for Congress

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Related NPR Stories

Read about Barack Obama's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

Obama bio

Barack Obama may be one of the country's most instantly recognizable figures — and a politician with what seems like a golden touch — but it hasn't always been that way.

In March of 2000, Obama, then an Illinois state General Assembly member, made his first run for Congress — and lost.

Obama sought to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, who by then had served four terms in Congress, in a Democratic primary. Rush had a long history with voters, who knew him as a Baptist minister, a veteran of the civil rights battles of the '60s, and a founding member of the Illinois branch of the Black Panthers, where he set up meal programs and medical screenings for the poor.

During the race, Obama sought to introduce himself in order to boost his name recognition, which registered at just 10 percent when he announced his candidacy.

In 2000, Rush campaigned on experience and on better times coming. "We're on the verge of a tremendous turnaround in the district," Rush told NPR that year. "We're right at the precipice. In the next few years you're going to see an economic renaissance."

Still, Rush was seen as vulnerable. Less than a year earlier, he had run for mayor of Chicago, taking on incumbent Richard M. Daley. Daley won easily, but questions then arose about whether Rush really wanted to stay in Congress.

About Experience

Obama was encouraged to run for Congress by some friends in the Chicago Democratic Party. A third candidate, State Sen. Donne Trotter, also entered the contest.

Obama went door to door, shaking hands and having countless conversations on front porches across the district. He talked of his record at the statehouse in Springfield over the previous three years, where he had championed health-care and campaign-finance reform and fought to end the police practice of racial profiling.

Some voters seemed to find Obama overly ambitious. Others felt he might be running for Congress without having fully paid his dues. During the campaign he was often asked about his lack of experience as an elected official.

During an interview on Chicago Public Television, host Phil Ponce asked Obama to describe how he felt prepared for Congress after serving only one term as an Illinois state senator.

Obama said he had other meaningful experience.

"I've represented affordable housing organizations that build affordable housing, something that's a major issue in the district," Obama said. "I've been a community organizer and helped design programs at the ground level."

The response is very similar to how he answers questions about his experience as he runs for president after less than one full term in the U.S. Senate.

"One of the things I bring is a perspective as a community organizer, as a state legislator, as well as a U.S. senator," Obama said at the CNN/YouTube debate in July.

'Not One of Us'

There are other things from the 2000 congressional race that have echoes in the Obama for President campaign, most notably the questions about his connection to the African-American community. The 1st district in Illinois was roughly two-thirds black when he ran in 2000, but Obama's biggest base of support came from Hyde Park, a more affluent, more diverse section of the district.

Obama had not come up through the civil-rights movement. His Harvard education and experience as a University of Chicago Law School professor were not necessarily a plus when put up against Rush's street-level experience.

Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Chicago's Roosevelt University, said Rush did not try to out do Obama in the areas of oratory or charisma; Obama had an easy edge in both categories.

Green said that Bobby Rush "basically had a campaign in which the argument was, 'Obama's not one of us.'"

'He Spanked Me'

Five months before election day, something happened that made a come-from-behind victory for Obama all but impossible. Rush's 29-year-old son, Huey Rich, was murdered on Chicago's South Side.

Such personal tragedy brought a huge outpouring of public support and sympathy.

Consultant Chris Sautter, who worked on the Obama 2000 campaign, said the shooting, "washed away most of the negative feelings people might have had about Bobby Rush."

"At that point it became clear that this was a pretty tall mountain to climb," Sautter said.

On primary election day Rush carried the day defeating Obama by better than 2-to-1.

When asked today to look back at that loss, Obama has a stock answer: "He spanked me."

The response carries sufficient humility, but it also implies he'd rather not talk about it. When pressed on what that loss taught him, Obama told NPR in 2004, "I had to really look into myself and say, why am I doing this? Is it to get attention or is it to help people?"

How It Helped

Even in losing, Obama gained plenty in losing to Rush. He vastly improved his name recognition. He made political friends and gained fundraising experience. And he ran a relatively positive campaign, emerging without having burned any political bridges.

Sautter said it was almost as though Obama hadn't lost at all. After the election, editorials cited Obama as a rising star.

"When a candidate loses, the question is, 'will you ever hear from him or her again?' But after Barack Obama lost in 2000, the question was, 'when will you hear from him again?'" Sautter said.

After that loss, Obama indeed went on to a U.S. Senate run four years later. His victory in that race brought him the national prominence that led to his presidential run. Sautter believes Obama would not have the same name recognition today had he defeated Rush.

Today, Obama would likely still be in the U.S. House, Sautter said. A rising star? Perhaps. But not the serious contender for the presidency that he is today.



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