Obama Pays a Campaign Visit to Iowa

Fresh from his Saturday announcement that he will be a candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama headed to Iowa. The Illinois Democrat was campaigning in the state that hosts vital early caucuses.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On the same weekend that Senator Clinton campaigned in New Hampshire, Senator Barack Obama was making his first campaign swing through Iowa. By last night he had returned to his home state for a rally in Chicago.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Maybe, just maybe, this campaign can be the vehicle for people's hopes and dreams.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: This campaign can present an opportunity for us to end the gridlock.

INSKEEP: It was the first weekend that Obama was formally in the race, and we have more from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: On Saturday morning, Obama announced his candidacy in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the place where Abraham Lincoln declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He presented himself as a leader of a new generation. He said he was running not just to hold an office but to transform a nation, and he tried to frame his relative inexperience as an asset.

Sen. OBAMA: There is a certain presumptuousness in this, a certain audacity to this announcement. I know that I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington, but I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: The temperature was in the teens, but thousands of people turned out to see him, including Matt Hortenstein(ph), who drove with his family an hour and a half from Effingham, Illinois.

Mr. MATT HORTENSTEIN: It's a historic occasion, and I wanted my kids to be a part of it, and we're Barack fans. I think he's got it going on. He's a smart guy and transcends a lot of problems. I think we need to start working toward solutions. I guess more importantly, the press aren't ripping him a new one, so that's a good thing, too.

LIASSON: Obama has received overwhelmingly positive press coverage, but now that he's making the transition from political phenomenon to political candidate, he's getting more scrutiny, and he's beginning to react.

At a press conference in Ames, he brought up, unprompted, what he said was the mainstream media's suggestion that his campaign was heavy on themes and short on detail.

Sen. OBAMA: The fact of the matter is, is that I have the most specific plan in terms of how to get out of Iraq of any candidate. I've written two books that have sold close to a million copies each that probably give people more insight into how I think and how I feel about the issues facing America than any candidate in the field. And the problem is not that the information is not out there, the problem is, is that's not what you guys have been reporting on. You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.

LIASSON: People magazine ran a photo of Obama in the surf in Hawaii over Christmas. As for his plan for Iraq, Obama wants to redeploy all combat brigades by March 31, 2008 and leave a much smaller military presence behind.

Obama's position on the war - he was against it from the beginning - gets the biggest applause everywhere, and it's also the biggest difference between Obama and Senator Clinton. Yesterday, without criticizing his rival directly, Obama said the contrast was important.

Sen. OBAMA: It indicates that even at the time it was possible to make judgments that this would not work out well. I feel good about the fact that my judgment was that we shouldn't be proceeding, and I think that speaks to hopefully the kind of judgment that I'll be bringing to the office of president as we move forward.

Unidentified Man: Are you guys ready to elect Senator Obama as president of the United States?

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Obama got a rock star reception wherever he went. Five hundred accredited reporters showed up to cover his announcement. At Iowa State University in Ames, his campaign had to move his event from the theater to a sports arena to accommodate the crowd.

(Soundbite of campaign stop)

LIASSON: So how are Iowa Democrats reacting to all this? Roger and Julie Fischer(ph) came to see Obama in Waterloo and they were very impressed. But they feel the same way about all the other Democrats running.

Mr. ROGER FISCHER: I think it's a really great, diverse field.

Ms. JULIE FISCHER: I'm beginning to feel more hope for our country because of the people who are running. I think they're more qualified. I think they're more passionate about truly wanting change. I'm feeling like it's going to be hard to make a choice.

LIASSON: And there's no reason to make a choice any time soon, because Iowa Democrats have 336 days until the 2008 presidential caucuses.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can fill some of your 336 days by reading more analysis of Obama's candidacy at npr.org

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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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