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Obama's Loss May Have Aided White House Bid
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Obama's Loss May Have Aided White House Bid

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Barack Obama is a political celebrity, no question about that. He won his U.S. Senate seat in a landslide in 2004. This year, a strong showing in early polls prompted him to seek the White House and he is currently among the top tier of Democratic contenders.

He seems a politician with a golden touch, but it wasn't always the case. We've been looking at the first campaigns of the presidential candidates. The Illinois Democratic primary in 2000 was Barack Obama's first campaign for Congress. In that race he ran and lost big.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: It's always tough to knock off an incumbent congressman, especially in a Democratic primary in an overwhelmingly Democratic city like Chicago. But that's just what then-38-year-old state Senator Barack Obama tried to do eight years ago.

The Obama name had not yet developed the cachet it has today, so the candidate set out to introduce himself. There were advertisements on black-owned radio stations, like this one focusing on utility problems in the district.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Here come the lights. ComEd must have heard from that Senator Bama.

Unidentified Woman: That's Obama. Barack Obama. And they'll be hearing a lot more from him.

Unidentified Man #2: Barack Obama, Democrat for Congress.

GONYEA: Early polling put Obama's name recognition at just over 10 percent. Compare that to the 90 percent enjoyed by the incumbent, Congressman Bobby Rush. Rush had served four terms in Illinois' 1st District, which included the South Side of Chicago. His connection to voters ran deep. A former Chicago city alderman, he was a Baptist minister and a veteran of the civil rights battles of the '60s.

In that same decade, he was also a founding member of the Illinois branch of the Black Panthers, where he set up meal programs and medical screenings for the poor. In 2000, Bobby Rush campaigned on experience and on better times coming. He spoke to NPR that year.

(Soundbite of interview)

Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): We're on the verge of a tremendous turnaround in the district. We're right at the precipice. We're right at the threshold. We're knocking on the door, and I believe that it's going to be - in the next few years, you're going to see an economic renaissance.

GONYEA: Still, Rush was seen as vulnerable because less than a year earlier, he made a run for mayor of Chicago by taking on incumbent Richard M. Daley. Daley won easily, and soon questions arose about Rush's desire to be a congressman, about whether it was time for a change.

Obama was encouraged to run for Congress by some friends in the Chicago Democratic Party. A third candidate jumped in as well, State Senator Donne Trotter.

Obama talked up his record in the Illinois Senate, where in three years he'd championed health care and campaign finance reform and where he'd pushed legislation to end racial profiling. He went door-to-door, shaking hands.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Well, I appreciate that.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. Because if you're telling me you're going to represent me, I'm not the average Joe, okay? I'll hold a candle to your foot.

GONYEA: State Senator Obama was seen as an ambitious young politician and during that 2000 primary campaign, he often faced questions like this one on Chicago Public Television. The interviewer is Phil Ponce.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. PHIL PONCE (Public TV Host): One of the criticisms that arises in connection with your candidacy is you simply haven't been in the Senate very long, the state Senate. What is your argument based on the one term that you served in the Senate so far that makes you prepared for the Congress?

GONYEA: Obama responded that he has other meaningful experience.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Sen. OBAMA: I've represented affordable housing organizations to build affordable housing - something that's a major issue in the district. I've been a community organizer and helped design programs at the ground level.

GONYEA: If that sounds familiar, listen to how he answers persistent questions about his experience today as he runs for president.

Sen. OBAMA: One of the things I bring is a perspective as a community organizer, as a state legislator, as well as a U.S. senator.

GONYEA: There's another thing from that 2000 race that has echoes in today's campaign, questions about Barack Obama's connection to the African-American community. The district was roughly two-thirds African-American, but Obama's biggest support came from Hyde Park, a more affluent, more diverse neighborhood.

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 Bobby Rush's street-level experience, so says Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago's Roosevelt University.

Professor PAUL GREEN (Roosevelt University): Rush shrewdly did not try and out-orate Obama, but basically had a campaign in which the argument was Obama's not one of us.

GONYEA: Then some five months before Election Day, something happened that made a come-from-behind victory all but impossible. Congressman Rush's 29-year-old son was murdered on Chicago's South Side. Rush's personal tragedy brought a huge outpouring of public support and sympathy.

Consultant Chris Sautter worked on the Obama 2000 campaign.

Mr. CHRIS SAUTTER (President, Sautter Communications): The death of Bobby Rush's son washed away most of the negative feelings that people had or might have had about Bobby Rush. And I think at that point, it became clear to the campaign that this is a pretty tall mountain to climb.

GONYEA: On primary day, Rush defeated Obama by a 2-1 margin. Obama, when asked to look back at that loss, has a stock answer.

Sen. OBAMA: He did more than just defeat me. He spanked me.

GONYEA: It's a response that carries sufficient humility, but its brevity also implies I'd rather not talk about it. When pressed on what that loss taught him, Obama offered this in a 2004 NPR interview.

(Soundbite of Obama's 2004 interview)

Sen. OBAMA: I think that that race was probably my last involvement in vanity politics. Since that time 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? And as long as I focus on the latter, then the politics seem to take care of themselves.

GONYEA: And Obama did get something out of that contest. He got name recognition. He made political friends and gained fundraising experience. He also ran a relatively positive campaign and came out of it without having burned any political bridges.

Consultant Chris Sautter says it was strange that when the votes came in, it was almost like Obama hadn't lost at all.

Mr. SAUTTER: After the election, all the editorials were about Barack Obama's future, and here was this rising star, as if he had won. And you know, when a candidate loses, most times 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?

GONYEA: And from that loss, Obama was suddenly poised for 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 says none of this would have taken place if somehow Obama had managed to defeat Bobby Rush.

Obama would likely still be in the U.S. House, perhaps a rising star, but not the serious contender for the presidency that he is today.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can hear ads from that 2000 campaign and read a political profile of Barack Obama at npr.org.

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