Obama Charts Unlikely, But Historic, Path to Front-Runner in Presidential Election

Ahead in the polls, Obama is propelled by calls for change and deep anger at nation's economic woes.

Barack Obama walks down a beach in Kailua, Hawaii, with Malia, left, and Sasha, during their August vacation.

Barack Obama in Hawaii with daughters Malia (L) and Sasha.

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Two years ago, he was a little-known freshman senator from Illinois, eloquent but untested, inspirational but inexperienced. When he announced his audacious goal of winning the presidency, the cognoscenti didn't give him much chance. Now, as the Democratic nominee, he leads in the polls and is favored to win, propelled by his calls for change and conciliation—and by deepening voter anger at the troubled economy and eight years of a Republican White House.

If elected, Sen. Barack Obama would occupy a unique role in American history. Not only would he be the first African-American president; his middle-class, multicultural background would be a big departure from his 42 predecessors, most of whom were rich and all of whom were white. Indeed, his biography is a central part of his campaign narrative.

Barry. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was a white woman from Kansas. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was a black man from Kenya. Born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, where his parents were students, he was named after his father ("Barack" means "the blessed one" in Swahili), but in his early years, he was known as Barry. His father left the family when his son was 2 years old to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard University. He then went back to Kenya and saw young Barry only one more time, when the youngster was 10. In another example of his multicultural history, after his mother divorced his dad, she married Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia, where Barry lived with the family for about four years.

That marriage also ended in divorce. Obama was raised for much of his youth by his white grandparents in Honolulu while his mother pursued her education. Barry attended the elite Punahou School there on a scholarship. He has written candidly about feeling isolated as an adolescent, resentful at being an outsider.

After graduating from Columbia University, he worked various jobs in New York, including at a Harlem nonprofit that promoted recycling, before moving to Chicago. As a community organizer, he helped poor and working-class people on the South Side pressure the city government for better services. Despite what he has acknowledged as a mixed record of success, he learned the importance of grass-roots organizing, a hallmark of his presidential campaign.

At Harvard Law School, Obama became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review before returning to Chicago to practice civil rights law. It was there, in 1992, that he married Michelle Robinson, a lawyer and Chicagoan whom he met at work. They now have two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

Obama's political career began in 1996 when he won a seat in the Illinois Senate. Four years later, however, he overreached when he challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and lost.

It was as a state senator in October 2002 when Obama made a little-noticed speech that has become one of the most important of his life. He told an antiwar rally in Chicago that he was against the looming Iraq conflict. "I am not opposed to all wars," he said. "I'm opposed to dumb wars." This solidified his popularity with antiwar Democrats and lent considerable weight to his rousing keynote at the party's 2004 convention.

Seizing the moment in an unsettled field, he ran for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and won 53 percent of the vote in a seven-candidate primary. He went on to an easy victory in the general election, making him only the fifth African-American ever in the Senate. With the help of mentors such as Richard Durbin of Illinois and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, he became known as a nonconfrontational legislator who worked across party lines.

Attacks. During this year's bruising presidential contest, Obama surprised skeptics by managing an impressively efficient campaign and maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of attacks. Obama's opponents, including both Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, have worked hard to cast doubt on some of Obama's past associations. Perhaps most damaging has been the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a local pastor who conducted his marriage ceremony. Obama was a member of Wright's congregation for two decades but said he never heard the kind of inflammatory sermons for which Wright has since become famous. Obama has disavowed Wright's comments and left the church.