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Illinois Candidate for the Senate Barack Obama Addresses the DNCC

July 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CROWD: Yes we can! Yes we can!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The crowd in the Chicago hotel ballroom was fired up last March. Their candidate, Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, had pulled in a remarkable 53 percent of the vote in a seven-way race for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate.

Even Obama was amazed.

BARACK OBAMA: The conventional wisdom was we could not win. There was no way that a skinny guy from the south side with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race. Sixteen months later, we are here.

And Democrats from all across Illinois, suburbs, city, down state, up state, black, white, Hispanic, Asian have declared, yes, we can!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It was a heady night for the 42-year-old state senator. He and his wife Michelle and their two young children watched returns in an upstairs suite never far from a camera lens.

On the hurried trip down to the ballroom, Obama spied his campaign pollster.

BARACK OBAMA: Did you poll this?

POLLSTER: I told David 47 percent.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I really do.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The next morning, Obama thanked voters for what was an impressive victory. He pulled 93 percent of the African American vote, carried white suburban areas by wide margins, finished a surprisingly strong second in rural downstate and even did well in white ethnic areas in Chicago with a history of voting against minorities.

Media consultant David Axelrod attributes the results to Obama’s style.

DAVID AXELROD: He has this ability to walk into any room whether it’s in the inner city, a white ethnic ward, a high toned suburban living room, or a downstate veteran’s hall, and just relate perfectly well to everyone in the room and it’s a great gift.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Part of Obama’s ability to relate easily with all types of people may stem from his own multiracial, multicultural background.

His Kansas born mother, met his Kenyan born father at the University of Hawaii in 1959. The couple lived in Hawaii until Barack was two, when his father left to study at Harvard and returned to Kenya without his family.

Barack experienced another culture when he left for Indonesia with his mother and her new husband, and soon a half-sister.

At age ten, he was sent back to Hawaii to attend the prestigious Punahoe Prep School while living with his grandparents.

He saw his father only once before he was killed in an automobile accident. His father’s death prompted him to travel to Kenya to try and understand the country and connect with his large Kenyan family.

At age 33, he wrote of his unusual heritage in a memoir, “Dreams from my Father,” a story of race and inheritance.

Michelle Obama says as chaotic as her husband’s early life was, he did have a strong support system.

MICHELLE OBAMA: I see his very untraditional family and that worked because he had the support systems.

I think there’s no doubt that he struggled, but it probably made him hungrier to strive to be great.

So I think all of that combined just led to the outcomes of this wonderful stable individual who is very calm, very rooted in his values, very respectful of others and incredibly loving.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After college, Obama took a job in Chicago organizing in low-income communities that had been hard hit by the loss of thousands of jobs in the steel mills.

Wanting to be more effective, he headed to Harvard Law School where he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review.

Recruited by top law firms across the country, he chose a small Chicago firm specializing in civil rights and economic development in the minority community.

But Judson Miner, a law firm partner, says it wasn’t long before a career in politics was on the horizon.

JUDSON MINER, Miner, Barnhill, and Galland: He was so talented that I think it was reasonably clear early on that he was going to be under a lot of pressure at some point to jump into government or politics.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Three years later Obama was in the Illinois state senate representing a predominantly African American district on Chicago’s south side.

BARACK OBAMA: I just want to stand in strong support of this bill; I’m working for a number of the organizations throughout the state that are trying to deal with this homeless issue.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Today he focuses on the same issues of social justice in his U.S. Senate campaign.

BARACK OBAMA: If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my child.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Given his stance on social issues plus his early opposition to the war in Iraq, his Republican opponent immediately charged that he was far too liberal for most Illinois voters.

But shortly after the Republican primary, winner Jack Ryan said he would drop out when salacious details were revealed in his divorce records.

While Republicans scrambled to find a new candidate, Obama was catapulted onto the national stage.

His impressive victory, his credentials and the possibility of his becoming the only African American currently in the Senate brought national attention culminating with the invitation to give the convention’s keynote address.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m going to be one of many voices. And so although it’s called the keynote address, obviously the real keynote address is John Kerry’s acceptance of the nomination.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: His media advisor says Obama will handle all the attention.

DAVID AXELROD: It would be easy to become intoxicated by all that attention, but Barack is very grounded.

He always says that having grown up in Hawaii that he’s learned that the tide comes in and the tide goes out, and when the tide comes in you just ride the wave, and he’s riding the wave right now.

But he knows, I think, that some of this is kind of illusory, ephemeral and that it’s not really what’s important.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m not sure it can happen? You just tell them, what are you going to tell them? Yes, we can, yes, we can!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well known now to Illinois voters, Obama introduces himself to the nation with his keynote address tonight.