Obama's improbable path to the nomination

WASHINGTON Talk about audacity.

A year ago, Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and at least a few others in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed to agree on one thing: She was the big favorite; he might just be a fl

WASHINGTON Talk about audacity. A year ago, Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and at least a few others in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed to agree on one thing: She was the big favorite; he might just be a flash in the pan. "The novelty’s going to wear off," one of the contenders predicted when excitement flared over Obama’s candidacy. That appraisal was from Obama, talking about himself. Now he stands ready to accept the party’s nomination in Denver, a black man who triumphed over history; a lightly experienced senator who prevailed over national security veterans in a time of peril; a non-Clinton who defeated a Clinton — imagine that. The title of his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, became a kind of prophecy for his improbable achievement. Obama came to national attention the old-fashioned way. Like men of past centuries in stiff suits and top hats, he stood up, gave a great speech and made people want to hear more. That was at the 2004 Democratic convention when he was keynote speaker, a showcase slot that usually does little for the careers of those who fill it. Democrats loved the oratory. But they knew that if they lost the 2004 election, Hillary Clinton would be ready to roll. They did. She was. "She’s unstoppable," John Catsimatidis, a New York businessman and member of Clinton’s finance team, said a month after she joined the race in January 2007 with a Webcast from her living room couch. "She’s got such a machine." John Edwards begged to differ. So did the other Democratic hopefuls, among them the foreign policy mavens Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson. Clinton predicted early on that she’d have the nomination in the bag by Feb. 5 this year, Super Tuesday. Meantime, Obama was soaking up cash, stirring crowds and wondering if at least some of this energy was the audacity of hype. "I think to some degree I’ve become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in for now," he said. "It’s a spirit that says we are looking for different." His victory in the leadoff Iowa caucuses changed perceptions overnight. Edwards came second; Clinton, a dispiriting third. Obama had wowed white crowds and done the practically unthinkable with young people — getting them off their rear ends on an election day. New Hampshire, the first primary, made Clinton the latest comeback kid, just as her husband had been when he revived his candidacy in that state in 1992. And the race settled into a slog — sometimes nobly gritty; other times ugly, seething and condescending. Remember this one? "You’re likable enough, Hillary," Obama said in one debate, grating words for Clinton supporters and a lot of women. Former President Clinton branded Obama’s Iraq stance a "fairy tale" and took the contest into a personal realm that no amount of glad-handing at the convention will be able to erase completely. Obama, rarely one to lose his cool, snapped that he didn’t know which Clinton he was running against sometimes. All of that before racist remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were injected into the already combustible mix, prompting Obama to speak head on about race in America and finally to leave Wright’s church. The Democrats plowed through 56 contests, 21 debates and hundreds of millions of dollars. The also-ran rivals peeled away. Among them, Richardson and Edwards left with the greatest cachet, their endorsements the most coveted. Obama won both — from Richardson when it counted, from Edwards late in the game. Edwards had brought both passion and drama to the campaign. He exhorted the nation to take on poverty when others preferred to talk about the middle class. He stood poignantly by his wife, Elizabeth’s, side as they told Americans her cancer had returned and was incurable. Only later came the soap opera that left Democrats surely wondering what a pickle they’d be in now if he had won. Just weeks before the convention, a shamed Edward acknowledged an affair, denied he fathered the ex-mistress’s child and left plenty of lingering questions. His national finance chairman admitted sending her money while denying that was to keep her quiet. By then Obama was playing in the waves in Hawaii, the prize his and soon to be claimed. Even so, his long-ago worries about the staying power of his pinch-me celebrity had proved partly right along the way. Things got tougher for him the more Clinton hung on — and hang on she did, until all the states and territories had their say. He had problems winning white support after all. She kept piling up victories in big states. And the man who packs a stadium like no other politician of his generation came uncomfortably close to needing the party bigwigs known as superdelegates to rescue him. But he survived the Clintons’ wringer all right. This was a man whose political accomplishments, unlike other parts of his life story, had come easily in the past. He’s been tested now. ______ Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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