Sen. Obama, Declaring from the Land of Lincoln

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Barack Obama has officially joined the field seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He declared his candidacy Saturday in Springfield, Ill., standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is now an official presidential candidate. He made his formal announcement yesterday in Springfield, Illinois, where he served eight years in the state legislature. Then he flew off to Iowa for a round of town meetings and rallies.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was with him and she filed this report.

MARA LIASSON: Obama announced his candidacy in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the same place where Abraham Lincoln declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Obama, who is tall and slim, wore an overcoat but no hat or gloves in the frigid weather. He said he was running not just to hold an office, but to transform a nation. And he continued the comparisons to Lincoln.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Thousands of people turned out to see him, including Monique Hortenstine(ph), who bundled up her two kids and drove an hour and a half from Effingham, Illinois.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

Ms. MONIQUE HORTENSTINE: We just think he's awesome and we're here to see him. And figured the kids should come for the history. If we have our first African-America president, they can say they were there when he announced.

LIASSON: So far, Obama's message has been thematic without many details. But now that he's a candidate, he'll face much tougher scrutiny.

Sen. OBAMA: Welcome to this importance town hall meeting.

LIASSON: In Cedar Rapids, where thousands of people packed into a high school gym, Obama was asked about issues. First up, Iraq.

Unidentified Man: My question is I know you've proposed to bring troops out of Iraq by March of next year. How do we do that?

LIASSON: Obama has introduced a bill in the Senate that would pull all combat troops from Iraq in a year. But he says he doesn't want to throw in the towel.

Sen. OBAMA: We have genuine responsibilities to the Iraqi people. We should be at least as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: And so...

LIASSON: Obama's opposition to the war from the beginning sets him apart from his chief rival for the nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton. And it gets him the biggest applause wherever he goes. But what animates him most is not the war. It's the cynicism that comes from a broken political system.

Sen. OBAMA: What's been lost is that our politics feels very much like an insider's game. I think people feel that the two parties are splitting the pot and ordinary voters are left out of the process.

LIASSON: Even as he transitions from political phenomenon to political candidate, Obama is still treated like a celebrity. Five hundred reporters showed up for his announcement, and his campaign had to charter a 757 to get him and the press corps to Cedar Rapids, all this 11 months before the Iowa caucuses.

Sen. OBAMA: You know, there was a big crowd today. But you know, let's face it. The novelty is going to wear off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: You're going to be, uhh, it's Obama again. He's coming through town. You know, the ball game's on. I've got other things to do. But that's okay, because what that means is we're going to be able to meet in smaller groups and house parties, and I'm really looking forward to that.

LIASSON: But if Obama's candidacy has staying power, it's unlikely the crowds will ever shrink enough to fit in anyone's living room.

Mara Liasson, NPR News with the Obama campaign in Iowa.

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)

At a Glance: Barack Obama

Chart the pace of the presidential race. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Barack Obama's first appearance on the national stage came in 2004, when he awed Democrats at the party's national convention in Boston. At the time, he was the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat in Illinois — an improbable nominee, at that.

Obama declared himself "part of the larger American story" and said "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

His story is, indeed, compelling: His white mother grew up in Kansas, his black father in a village in Kenya; they met and married in Hawaii. Obama became a community organizer and, later, a state legislator in racially divided Chicago. His victory in the 2004 Democratic Senate primary was considered a major upset. Only two years before, he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in the Democratic primary and got clobbered. But when Obama spoke at the 2004 convention, many Democrats inside the hall and those watching on television saw Obama as the party's future.

Few, however, expected that future to come this fast. Since announcing his candidacy, Obama has given Democratic audiences the sense that he can rise above politics (and even race) and inspire hope. He has drawn huge crowds to his rallies. He has further cemented his standing as a viable candidate with his prodigious fundraising prowess. That his campaign kitty is comparable to Hillary Clinton's is especially impressive, considering the fact that the Clintons have been raising money for nearly two decades, while this is the first time on the national scene for Obama.

One criticism Obama has faced is his comparatively thin elections resume; he is running for president having spent just two years in the Senate. He responds to that by saying that he has not picked up the bad habits of people who have been in Washington too long. And he points out that in 2002, while still a state legislator, he was publicly speaking out against invading Iraq at a time when Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and then-Sen. John Edwards all voted to give President Bush the authorization to go to war. Those senators are now his rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination; all are now against the war.

Obama has been heralded widely as a "rock star." But as Howard Dean learned in 2003-04, early hype about a candidacy can certainly fade. Obama's staff has wisely managed to tamp down expectations of their candidate. But the nation has never had a serious African-American presidential candidate before, and the question of whether voters are ready to vote for one is not likely to be answered until the primaries and caucuses begin in January 2008.

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