A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in February 2007. His relative inexperience was seen as a liability, but the Illinois senator built a deft political organization.
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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

A Look at Obama's Path to the Nomination

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in Karachi, Pakistan. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.

Senator Hillary Clinton is poised to suspend her campaign for the White House. Her campaign announced late yesterday that she will make an announcement on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Aides say she will express support for Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee. In recent weeks, the steady climb of Obama's delegate count has made his nomination seem all but inevitable. But for most of this campaign, he was anything but inevitable.

Though he always had star power, his relative inexperience on the national stage was seen as a liability. Obama won because of a surprisingly deft political operation and a talent for connecting with new voters and contributors. NPR's Don Gonyea has this look at how it all happened.

DON GONYEA: Ever since his landslide election to the senate four years ago, Barack Obama has been seen as a rising Democratic star who might one day run for president. That day came sooner than most expected: February 10th, 2007.

Unidentified Announcer: Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: Obama chose Springfield, Illinois to make the announcement.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): 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.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: Obama supporter Matt Hortenstein(ph) was there.

Mr. MATT HORTENSTEIN: It's an historic occasion, and 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. 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.

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

Obama spent 2007 introducing himself to people, traveling the country and going to Iowa and New Hampshire. He trailed in the polls that showed Senator Clinton the clear frontrunner, but he hammered away on the issue of the Iraq War. He vowed to bring the troops home. Hillary Clinton also voiced opposition to the war, but in the senate in 2002, she voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

Obama, not yet a U.S. senator then, opposed the war from the start.

Sen. OBAMA: When I am this party's nominee, 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 support Bush-Cheney policies in not talking to leaders that we don't like.

GONYEA: Obama dazzled 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 grass roots, Obama - a former community organizer - and his field operation simply out-organized everyone else.

Scenes like this one, featuring Iowa field coordinator Adam Upman(ph) and a group of volunteers, played out in county after county, in state after state.

Mr. ADAM UPMAN (Iowa Field Coordinator for Barack Obama): 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 will you or bring supporter cards. You brought one. You need two more.

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

Sen. OBAMA: They said this day would never come.

(Soundbite of cheering)

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

Sen. OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: Suddenly, the world looked at Barack Obama differently. We was, for the first time, a potential president of the United States. The campaign tapped into the moment with a major Internet fundraising drive. Cash poured in, most from small contributors - the kind of people who don't usually make such donations. And these were people he could back to for more help later.

Five days after Iowa came New Hampshire. The result?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Together, let's give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.

GONYEA: It was a lesson in just how formidable of an opponent Hillary Clinton would be. Yet even in a loss, Obama chose to use much of his victory speech, anyway.

Sen. OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: Yes, we can.

GONYEA: From that speech came an iconic moment in the Obama campaign, an Internet video produced not by the campaign, mixing Obama's own words from New Hampshire with performers from the world of music and film joining in.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer) and Sen. OBAMA: It declares the destiny of a nation. Yes, we can.

GONYEA: 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 middle-sized states, building up a lead in delegates that Clinton would never overcome. Still, exit polling revealed a real trouble spot for him: white, working-class voters, and a racial divide among the voters got worse when video tapes when an ex-pastor's sermons hit the Internet.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Former Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): No, no, no - not God bless America, God damn America - that's in the Bible - for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.

GONYEA: Reverend Jeremiah 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.

Sen. OBAMA: 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 a 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 pass 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.

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

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

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Chief Strategist, Obama Presidential Campaign): The truth of the matter is that if you don't engage in this process, you're going to take hits, and you may take them in the nominating process. You may take them after. I'd say this: If you can beat as formidable a candidate and as formidable a political organization as Hillary Clinton and the Clinton organization, I think that says something about the durability of this candidate and this candidacy.

GONYEA: When Senator Obama declared victory on Tuesday, he recalled his earliest speeches as a candidate - this time, though, looking ahead to the fall.

Sen. 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.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, traveling with the Obama campaign.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can also look back at how the entire Democratic primary campaign played out at npr.org/elections.

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