COLLEGE PARK, MD.—Barack Obama was pumped. Moments before, he had led an exhilarating rally at the University of Maryland, where 18,000 students and other supporters gave him a rapturous welcome. When he proceeded to a holding room for an exclusive interview, he deftly shifted gears from mass motivator to history professor as he dissected the trends behind his surge into the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination. After the Q&A, he made still another stylistic shift, tucking his lanky 6-foot-1 frame into a quiet corner for a telephone chat with a Washington, D.C., black radio personality named "Big Tigger."
Clearly, Obama has learned a thing or two about campaigning since he got into the race as a bold upstart with little national experience a year ago. And this education is paying off. In February, the 46-year-old first-term senator from Illinois won primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, giving him victories in eight consecutive contests against rival Hillary Clinton. But the race remains close, and a big showdown looms on March 4, when Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont hold primaries. If Clinton fails to derail the Obama Express then, it could make him unstoppable.
In fact, while Obama could fade, it has become increasingly clear that his dream is more attainable than ever. It started as a chapter out of Don Quixote when he first went up against what seemed to be a Clinton juggernaut. Adding to the aura of improbability, Obama billed himself, with considerable audacity, as a unique phenomenon—the Kennedy-like tribune of a new generation, a conciliator who could break Washington's never-ending cycle of attack and stalemate, and, most historic of all, the first African-American to have a serious chance at winning the presidency. In the process, he has emerged not so much a black candidate but a candidate who happens to be black, helping to move the country beyond America's sad history of slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice. The "Potomac primaries" showed his potential, as he amassed majorities among white men, Latinos, blacks, young people, and other disparate demographic groups.
"When I decided to run," he says, "my calculation was that it was a long shot but that there was a possibility that the skills I had to offer—bringing people together, a track record of pushing against the special interests, a 20-year history of working at a grass-roots level to help working families, pretty well-developed evidence of being straight with people—that that might be what the country needs right now," he says. "And you know for us to have achieved what we've achieved so far is less, I think, a testament to me than it is to the American people and their eagerness for a fundamental shift in how we do business."
He says the key moment came after he lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton. It could have been a crushing blow, but Obama says that "it showed me that even in the face of hardship, our base of support held rock steady, and they got even more enthusiastic and more energized after that."
After seven years of what Obama called the failed policies of George W. Bush's administration, "this is a moment where you don't have an incumbent president, you don't have an incumbent vice president, where it is possible for somebody like myself, who has a different tone and approach to politics, to emerge," he says. "What I think people are persuaded about is that it's not enough just to change political parties in the White House, that there's something deeper that ails us, that our politics has gotten out of touch, that it is too sharply partisan, and it's too tactical, and it's obsessed with the perpetual campaign as opposed to governance."
A movement. Many voters appear to like what they hear, even though he is often heavy on inspiration and a bit light on the details. Says Cornell Belcher, Obama's pollster: "His campaign is taking on the look and feel of a movement. This isn't just politics anymore."
Others say Obama is naive. "He is promising a society and a political system that is much more malleable and more appreciative of transformative ideas than has been possible for quite some time," says political scientist Bill Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now supporting Hillary Clinton. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, is more blunt, arguing that Clinton is in the "solutions business" while Obama is in the "promises business."