So it begins. After 16 months, more than 35 million votes, and 54 hard-fought contests, Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, has reached a historic plateau. As the first African-American to become the presumptive presidential nominee of a major party, he has a good chance to win the highest office of a land that once condoned slavery and for many years kept blacks segregated from the white population, forcing them to live as second-class citizens or worse. A generation or two ago, in fact, he would have been consigned to the back of the bus in many communities. But last week, Obama reflected happily on how times have changed, telling ABC News's Charles Gibson that his success is a "testament to this country's urge to live up to its ideals, as imperfectly as that is sometimes."
The historic nature of Obama's ascent is becoming clearer with each passing day. "He has become one of the great orators in American history, and he is the African-American politician who has gone furthest in American life," says historian Doug Brinkley. "He's already claimed an important part in our racial history. He's this generation's Horatio Alger story, whether or not he takes it to another level."
Obama came from nowhere as a first-term senator from Illinois to defeat Hillary Clinton, the favorite of the Democratic Establishment and a universally known former first lady who had full use of the powerful political machine developed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Six months ago, Hillary Clinton led Obama by about 20 points in national polls. But Obama's message of hope and healing carried great resonance, and he scored one of the biggest upsets in political history.
No sooner had Obama locked up the nomination on June 3 than he and Republican candidate John McCain began trying to frame the general election. And the contrasts couldn't be more dramatic. McCain, 71, a white-haired conservative with a maverick streak, is a former POW in Vietnam who still bears the scars of his injuries and the torture he endured in captivity. He would be the oldest person to be sworn in for a first term as president.
New leader. Obama, 46, a silver-tongued liberal with a gift for oratory and a commitment to sweeping change, not only would be the first black to hold the presidency but offers a strong generational contrast to McCain. Obama's multicultural background, not only from his parents but from his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives him a unique basis to understand the diversity that is at America's core and to serve as a new type of leader who could break down barriers in international affairs. At least, that is his promise.
But McCain pegs Obama as too inexperienced to be commander in chief and too liberal for mainstream America. "The perception of Obama is a cultural leftist. He disses religion, and there's a chasm between his world experience" and that of Middle Americans, says a McCain adviser, referring to the flap over Obama's comments about Pennsylvania voters being "bitter."
For his part, Obama paints McCain as a man of the past who would continue the status quo, is out of touch with the problems of everyday Americans, and would offer a continuation of the policies of the unpopular George W. Bush, not the sweeping change that Americans are looking for. In a deft bit of gamesmanship, Obama gave his victory address to 17,000 cheering supporters in the same St. Paul, Minn., arena where the Republicans will nominate McCain in September.
Most pressing for Obama now is not to frame the general election debate but to figure out how to deal with Hillary Clinton. Typical of their close race, the two rivals split the last two primaries on June 3, with Obama winning Montana and Clinton taking South Dakota. It was the superdelegates—elected officials and party activists who aren't bound by primaries or caucuses—who put Obama over the top.
Obama used his victory speech to extend an olive branch to Clinton, praising her as a tenacious, public-spirited leader "who inspires millions" and who demonstrated "an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans." A former adviser to Bill Clinton says Obama's graciousness and unflappability are two of his most appealing traits. "Obama is steady," he says. "He can amend his views and consider new things, be flexible. He has a suitable temperament for the presidency."