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Wednesday, June 09, 2004  

Politics: Obama's campaign tense, touching

I am following the Senate campaign of a Chicago politician pretty closely. Barack Obama took his primary by storm and is the favorite to go all the way. Young looking, very, very smart, and half-African and half-American, he is far from ordinary fare for either state or national politics. Though I have never met Obama (pictured), I'm acquainted with him through the network of African-Americans, Hispanics, Indians and Asians who have moved in circles traditionally peopled by the white elite. Many of us know of each other. The reason I am interested in Obama is that I hope to see a person of color I can respect become the third elected to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, that may not happen. There is a tendency for white voters to say they will support African-American politicians in polls and then switch to the white candidate when they are in the voting booth with the curtain drawn. Andrew Young, Tom Bradley and others hoping to bridge the racial gap have been defeated by the jinx. Obama will make history if he becomes a senator from Illinois.

Columnist Bob Herbert is also heartened by Obama's candidacy.

In a political era saturated with cynicism and deceit, Mr. Obama is asking voters to believe him when he talks about the values and verities that so many politicians have lied about for so long. He's asking, in effect, for a leap of political faith.

So far, at least, the voters of Illinois seem to be responding. A Chicago Tribune poll released this week showed Mr. Obama with a huge lead, 52 percent to 30 percent, over his Republican rival, Jack Ryan.

Mr. Obama has not ducked the issues. He has opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, and he delivered a stirring antiwar speech at a rally in October 2002. He supports the war in Afghanistan . He believes the Bush tax cuts went too far, and he makes that clear even in appearances before wealthy audiences. He said: "I tell them, `Look, I think we need to roll back those tax cuts that benefited you. You don't need them. Let's talk about what we could do with that money.' "

Obama is used to excelling. He became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and was elected to state office at an age when most people are still using milk crates as bookcases. His life has been a complicated one. At forty-two, he has made peace wihth the memory of the Kenyan father who he saw little of growing up. He believes being reared by white grandparents from the Midwest helps him understand the rural voters he will need to combine with his urban constituency to win this election. He is satisfied with having rejected a career at a silk stocking law firm for public service.

Obama's foe is not so much a person as a huge heap of money. Republican Jack Ryan, a multimillionaire, is being backed by the big guns of the Republican Party. Vice President Dick Cheney, said to spend more than three-fourths of his time fundraising, recently helped Ryan raise $500,000. Ryan is also supported by the ultraconservative Club for Growth. We last discussed the Club in regard to its efforts to defeat moderate Republican Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. The far Right pulled out all the stops against Spector, painting the more conservative than not veteran pol as a quiche eating liberal. The campaign against Obama threatens to be equally nasty. Ryan has assigned a shadower to follow Obama wherever he goes and film his every move. The cameraman is said to stand so close to the candidate that he probably gets sprayed whenever Obama sneezes.

SPRINGFIELD -- For the past 10 days, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama hasn't been able to go to the bathroom or talk to his wife on his cell phone without having a camera-toting political gofer from his Republican rival filming a few feet away.

In what has to be a first in Illinois politics, Republican Jack Ryan has assigned one of his campaign workers to record every movement and every word of the state senator while he is in public.

Warfel interrupted Obama several times with heckling questions, but wouldn't respond when reporters asked him about who he was and why he was filming Obama's every move.

Fortunately, there does not seem to be any dirt to be dug up in regard to Obama. He has bared his life thoroughly in an autobiography to be released this fall. Ryan, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. He is fighting to keep records of his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan secret. (She is best known for the role of 7 of 9 on Startrek: Voyager.) I believe that if the records are opened or leaked, there is significant danger of harm to his campaign.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert A. Schnider has tentatively scheduled a "final hearing" on the question for June 18.

Ryan declined to answer any questions at a fund-raiser Friday night, but his spokesman dismissed persistent speculation among GOP insiders that the contents of the file are so explosive that the former investment banker from Wilmette will wind up folding his candidacy.

Most incumbent senators are in safe seats, as usual. However, a pair of neophytes is battling in Illinois. If you are looking for a real contest and a candidate who inspires, Obama's campaign is the one to watch.

Reasonably related

Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, will be published in August. You can preorder if from Amazon.

•Visit Obama's blog.

Read about his accomplishments.

1:14 PM