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Keynote speaker capitalizes on meteoric rise

Barack Obama, a young Illinois state senator and law professor, favored in his bid to be the fifth black  senator in U.S. history, takes his first steps on the national stage as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama is on a roll.

First was the unexpected triumph in the Illinois Democratic Senate primary in March.

Then came the summertime sex-club furor that drove his Republican rival from the race. And the failure thus far of the GOP to field a replacement.

Now, the 42-year-old state senator and Harvard-educated law professor, heavily favored in his bid to become the fifth black senator in history, is taking his first steps onto the national stage as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention.

“There’s no doubt about it. There has been a weird convergence of events that even six months ago I would never have anticipated,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.

His voice raspy from rehearsal, Obama said he’ll use his 20 minutes on the convention podium to counter Republican accusations that the Democratic Party stands for big government and big spending. Instead, he will argue that the party stands for helping people and using government to do it.

“We’re interested in making sure everybody has an opportunity and kids have a shot at life,” he said. “To do that, there are going to be times when it’s necessary for government to step in.”

Early opponent of invasion
An early opponent of invading Iraq, Obama said the speech will not dwell on President Bush’s handling of the war or on specific policy differences with the GOP administration.

“I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on Bush. I spend a lot of time focusing on where we fall short of our ideals.”

The Harvard Law School graduate said he wrote a speech that is closer to Mario Cuomo’s 1984 address urging Democrats to return to their roots than to Ann Richards’ blistering 1988 attack on the first President Bush.

The opportunity of delivering a convention keynote address can be a frustrating one. “Whatever John Kerry wants, John Kerry gets,” said Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, whose speech was heavily vetted by Al Gore’s team at the 2000 convention.

“I’ve been very happy with the amount of latitude they’ve given me,” Obama said of the Kerry campaign.

He wrote the speech himself over the course of two or three days, he said, then showed it to aides. After incorporating some of their suggestions, he shared the text with Kerry’s advisers. They asked for only a few changes, he said.

Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, who is the candidate for US Senate, talks about his life and politics during an interview at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Friday, July 23, 2004. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)Seth Perlman Stf / AP

As a speaker, Obama can sound at turns like a college professor, a union activist or a down-home preacher. He said he prefers to speak off the cuff instead of working from a written text. Tuesday night will be his first experience with a teleprompter.

A hectic schedule
In the interview, though, he said he was less concerned about the speech than other duties that befall a politician on the rise.

“My schedule is a nightmare,” he said. “My concern has less to do with the speech and more to do with the need to fill in for Kerry or Edwards at the thousands of receptions and events that are taking place.”

Five months ago, Obama had more elementary political concerns, those of a state senator struggling in a multi-candidate senatorial primary. Obama had a compelling story: His father was a member of Kenya’s Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria. He met Obama’s mother, who was white, when both were students at the University of Hawaii.

When Obama was 2, his father left the family, returning to Kenya, where he eventually became a senior economist in the Ministry of Finance. Obama grew up to receive degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities, and now is an instructor at the University of Chicago Law School.

But one rival’s campaign unraveled when unsealed divorce records showed he struck an ex-wife on the leg and allegedly threatened her.

More momentum
And Obama gained momentum when he began airing commercials that portrayed him as the successor to the late Sen. Paul Simon, a hugely popular former senator from downstate Illinois. The spot featured Sheila Simon talking about how her father and Obama had worked together.

The nomination in hand, Obama became the instant favorite to defeat Republican Jack Ryan in his Democratic-leaning state. But that campaign had scarcely begun when unsealed divorce records showed Ryan’s ex-wife had accused him of taking her to sex clubs and asking her to engage in public sex.

Ryan denied the charge, but Illinois Republicans deserted him and he quit the campaign.

That was nearly a month ago, and so far, Republicans have no replacement.