In the end, the Democrats fell in love. At least, half of them did, and the party establishment, as represented by the superdelegates, wasn't going to deny them their inamorata.
Kids fainted at his rallies as if they were at a concert of the latest boy band. He mustered crowds worthy of the pope. He gave TV commentators shivers. Rather than a traveling press corps, he should have been covered by the greatest of sonneteers: Oh, his subduing tongue, his spirit all compact of fire, his beauty beauteous!
The Democrats have always yearned for another Kennedy, and here is Barack Obama promising the stylish cool of a Jack, inspiring the frenzy on the campaign trail of a Bobby and sporting the endorsement of Ted.
The last fresh new thing in Democratic politics, Bill Clinton, never truly had the imprimatur of the Kennedys, even if he brandished a youthful photo of himself shaking Jack's hand at the White House as a kind of Excalibur moment. Clinton the centrist was always compromised as a liberal paladin by his compromises.
Obama represents a rejection of triangulating Clintonism. He had no Sister Souljah moment during the primaries. Indeed, he initially embraced his Sister Souljah, in the form of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright introduced to the public in videotaped anti-American rants. Nor did Obama make any creative policy departures, like Clinton's advocacy of welfare reform in 1992. Obama is the fullest flowering of liberal orthodoxy since George McGovern.
And yet he has to be slightly favored to win the presidency. He brings his formidable personal gifts to a confrontation with a Republican Party that, beset by intellectual exhaustion, congressional scandal and an unpopular incumbent president, teeters on the verge of a Watergate-style meltdown. So Democrats contemplate the delicious prospect of having their purity and victory, too. It would be as if the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- and won.
Everyone remarks on Obama's stirring rhetoric, but the other hallmark of his primary campaign was organizational prowess. He had a cohesive team; it executed a strategy of relentless focus on delegates, even from tiny caucus states, that proved decisive; and it raised the astonishing sum of nearly $300 million, outspending Hillary Clinton three-to-one in February, when Obama all but clinched the nomination.
With the flush of good feeling over his historic victory, Obama will barrel down on John McCain's puttering Straight Talk Express like a runaway train. The night he clinched his victory, Obama easily filled the arena in St. Paul, Minn., where Republicans will hold their convention, whipping the crowd of 17,000 into a rapture of hope and change. McCain delivered a counterspeech in New Orleans that reactively riffed off Obama's signature lines in another sign that -- one way or another -- it's The Year of Obama.
The race will be all about him. Can he connect with the downscale voters who gave Hillary Clinton half -- or maybe a little more -- of the Democratic primary vote? Can he put away questions about his Chicago associations? Is he a plausible commander in chief? Does his rhetoric begin to seem naively grandiose and his unruffled detachment arrogant and out-of-touch?
The trajectory of the race could reprise 1976. Jimmy Carter, the Obamaesque purveyor of a new politics who exploded out of nowhere, led the solid, uninspiring Gerald Ford by as much as 30 points, before winning by a mere 2 points. Obama may lead McCain throughout the summer, but the public will focus on the reality of a President Obama in the fall and the race will tighten.
Only then will we know if Obama is the transformative figure of a new era of Democratic dominance in Washington, or the candidate on whom besotted Democrats heedlessly threw away an all-but-inevitable victory. They have the man they love -- for better or worse.