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A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination

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A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination

Election 2008

A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination

A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91181160/91181117" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Barack Obama in 2004 when he won his U.S. Senate seat.

Candidate Barack Obama casts his vote in the Senate race with the help of his daughter, Malia, on Nov. 2, 2004, in Chicago. He won in a landslide. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama wins enough delegates for the nomination.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama acknowledges the audience during a rally on June 3, 2008, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More on Sen. Obama

In recent weeks, the steady climb of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's delegate count has made his nomination seem all but inevitable.

But for most of this campaign, he was anything but a shoe-in. He always had star-power, but his relative inexperience on the national stage was seen as too much of a liability.

Obama won because of a surprisingly deft political operation and a game-changing talent for connecting with new voters, as well as contributors.

A Campaign Begins

Ever since Obama's landslide election to the Senate four years ago, he has been seen as a rising Democratic star who might one day run for president. That day came sooner than most expected, on Feb. 10, 2007.

Obama chose Springfield, Ill., to make the announcement. "In the shadow of the old state capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America," he said.

Obama supporter Matt Hortenstein was there for what he later called a "historic occasion."

"I wanted my kids to be a part of it, and it's not every day that you get a chance to see something like this, and we're Barack fans," said Hortenstein. "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 on."

Later that day, the senator outlined the unlikely path that had brought him to this place. He spoke of being the child of a single mom who was once on food stamps. His mother was white, while his father was an African student in the U.S. who left when Obama was just a toddler.

Obama spent 2007 introducing himself to people and traveling the country, with frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.

He trailed in the polls, which showed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as the clear front-runner, but he hammered away on the issue of the Iraq war, vowing to bring troops home. Clinton also voiced opposition to the war, but in the Senate in 2002, she voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Obama, not yet a U.S. senator, opposed the war from the start.

"When I am this party's nominee," he said, "my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I supported Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don't like."

Victory in Iowa

Obama dazzled audiences with his speeches and massive rallies. Older supporters said he reminded them of Bobby Kennedy. Younger ones said they cared about politics for the first time.

And while all campaigns claim to have grassroots, Obama (himself a former community organizer) and his field operation simply out-organized everyone else. In Iowa, as across the country, campaign workers reached out to potential voters.

Iowa field coordinator Adam Ukman made his case: "You guys have done a ton, but I'm going to keep asking more of you because I need you, and we need you, and Barack Obama needs you. And so the next time you come back, bring three new people with you or bring three supporter cards."

Then came the first truly milestone accomplishment of the Obama campaign: Jan. 3, the Iowa caucus.

It was a big, improbable victory: Obama, an African-American, winning in an overwhelmingly white, rural state.

"They said this day would never come," he said to the crowds in Des Moines. "They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."

From New Hampshire to YouTube

Suddenly, the world looked at Obama differently. For the first time, he was a potential president of the United States. The campaign tapped into the moment with a major Internet fundraising drive. Cash poured in, mostly from small contributors — the kind of people who don't usually make such donations. These were people he could go back to for more help later, as well.

Five days after Iowa came New Hampshire, where Clinton staged a comeback.

It was a lesson in just how formidable an opponent Clinton would be. Yet Obama chose to use much of his victory speech anyway: "For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can."

From that speech came an iconic moment in the Obama campaign: an Internet video mixing Obama's own words from New Hampshire with performers from the world of music and film joining in with the refrain of "Yes We Can."

On the primary season's biggest day, Super Tuesday, Obama lost in the biggest states but held his own overall. He followed with a string of victories — mostly in small and medium-sized states – and built up a lead in delegates that Clinton would never overcome.

Still, exit polling revealed a real trouble spot for him: white, working-class voters. A growing racial divide among the voters got worse when videotaped sermons of Obama's then-pastor Jeremiah Wright hit the Internet.

In one of the videos, Wright says, "No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America. That's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating your citizens as less than human."

Wright was not just any Obama supporter. He'd presided at Obama's wedding. He'd baptized Obama's children. These videos prompted Obama to address the issue of race in America in a way that he hadn't previously.

Speaking in Philadelphia, he talked of growing up in a mixed-race household, and of the reasons blacks and whites often see the world differently. He condemned Wright's words, but not the pastor himself:

"I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love."

'You're Going to Take Hits'

The speech won high praise, but it did not end the controversy. Weeks later, Wright appeared at the National Press Club. In almost taunting fashion, he reiterated some of his most controversial opinions. This time, Obama did condemn him. But few doubt that the issue will resurface during the general election campaign.

This week on the campaign plane, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, was asked about the hits Obama took during the bruising primary season and whether they will make the fall campaign tougher.

"The truth of the matter is," Axelrod said, "if you're going to engage in this process, you're going to take hits, and you may take them in the nominating process, or you may take them after. I'd say this: If you can beat as formidable a candidate as the Clinton organization and as formidable a political organization ... I think it says something about the durability of this candidate and this candidacy."

When Obama declared victory on Tuesday, he recalled his earliest speeches as a candidate — this time looking ahead to the fall.

"This was the moment," said Obama. "This was the time when we came together to remake this great nation, so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals. Thank you, Minnesota. God bless you. God bless the United States of America."

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