Barack Obama's meteoric leap into contention for the Democratic presidential nomination represents the first major obstacle to Hillary Clinton's expected bid for nomination in 2008. A mere 13 months before the first nominating contests are to be held in Iowa and New Hampshire, the skinny senator from Illinois has emerged as the Democrats' best orator -- with an optimistic and hopeful message that has begun to galvanize the party's rank-and-file behind his once-improbable White House ambitions.
His recent trips to Iowa (where he was "greeted like a rock star," a state official said) and more recently in New Hampshire, where he sold out a $25-per-person fundraising victory rally in a matter of hours have sparked a wave of excitement over him at the party's grassroots.
"I think it's a strong likelihood that Obama could become a front-runner," enthused Sandy Opstvedt of Story City, Iowa, a Democratic National Committee member and veteran party operative.
"He has the ability to inspire audiences. Voters are looking for someone who can express that enthusiasm and achieve changes. A lot of people are frustrated by the lack of ability to get things done and are looking for a candidate who can do that," she told me.
While Mrs. Clinton still beats all comers in the national polls, they are not necessarily the determining factor in the grueling state-by-state marathon of caucuses and primaries. Indeed, Democratic strategists now say Obama is seen as a threat to Hillary in the early contests. Among her weaknesses: early support for the Iraq war, opposition to a speedy pullout, and support for free-trade pacts that are poison in the party's working-class base.
"Barack Obama is a threat to Hillary, but only if he makes a contrasting case against her," said Democratic campaign adviser David Sirota, a top strategist in antiwar challenger Ned Lamont's Democratic primary upset over Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (who went on to win the general election as an independent).
"If it's a popularity contest between two well-known Democratic politicians, then he isn't much of a threat. But if he starts campaigning on the issues of the Iraq war and on economic issues in contrast to Hillary, who voted for the war resolution, opposed early troop withdrawals and supports free-trade issues that have destroyed jobs here, then he's a real, major threat," Sirota told me.
In heavily unionized Iowa, for example, trade issues are pivotal, as is the war which "will most likely cause her problems" with the party's base, Opstvedt said.
But in what came close to an early endorsement, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign, said that, "If Barack runs, he should run to win the presidency and not run to defeat Hillary Clinton.
"Barack has something that is awfully missing today in American politics: the gift of charisma. Most people find him not just attractive, but politically viable. He has crossover appeal and the ability to attract moderates and independents," she told me.
But the Harvard-educated Obama has problems, too, specifically his tissue-paper-thin experience and a record of virtually no accomplishment. He has led no causes, fought no major legislative battles in the past two years he has been in the Senate, and seems to be deeply against getting into a principled fight about anything larger than himself.
"Indeed, Obama is that oddest of all creatures: a leader who's never led," writes liberal Democratic analyst Ezra Klein in the Los Angeles Times. "There are no courageous, lonely crusades to his name, or supremely unlikely electoral battles beneath his belt. He won election running basically unopposed, and then refused to open himself to attack by making a controversial but correct issue his own," Klein said.
But in the present political environment, with Hillary Clinton battling to overcome her own image problems as a deeply polarizing figure, Obama could be offering his party exactly what they want right now: an eloquent, ecumenical, youthful political star who excites the party's base and has the ability to reach out to cross-over constituencies.
He has said he is seriously considering his candidacy and will make his decision sometime next month and insiders now believe he will throw his hat in the ring.
His advisers think that no one has a lock on the nomination, not even Hillary who has yet to prove herself in presidential politics, and no one comes close to his oratorical powers to connect with audiences wherever he goes.
"The race is wide open here," New Hampshire Democratic vice chairman Ray Buckley told me. "Nobody has 30 percent and it can be anybody's victory."