Steve Chapman

INDIANAPOLIS -- Barack Obama's success so far in this campaign is a puzzle. How is it that a youngish first-term senator with so many disadvantages -- a slight resume, a foreign-sounding name, an exotic background, a professorial manner, a thoroughly liberal voting record, and a skin color unlike any previous president -- has come so far, and even leads in national polls with less than two weeks to go?

He does have some things going for him, of course: his rhetorical skill, his unflappability and not least of all a financial crisis that reflects badly on the party occupying the White House. But none of those explains how he managed to defeat a daunting Democratic rival and outshine an inspiring war hero with demonstrated crossover appeal. If you had written the story as fiction a few years ago, publishers would have rejected it as grossly outlandish.

But the implausibility of the occasion is no deterrent to the 35,000 people who have turned out this weekday morning to see one of the few Democratic presidential candidates to imagine he might carry the staunchly Republican state of Indiana.

It is a racially mixed audience, and I meet a variety of participants, including a white factory worker, a black pharmacy technician, a group of white teens from Illinois in blue Future Farmers of America jackets and a black ex-Marine who teaches middle school. There is also a quartet of lively middle-aged women -- two white, two black -- who, after dancing happily to the warmup music, christen themselves the Michellettes.

And what did they hear from the man they came to see? Much of Obama's address consisted of standard campaign riffs, most of which could be delivered just as well by his opponent, on timeworn topics: the plight of the middle class, the need for tax relief, the unfairness of our health care system and the failure of economic policies that -- can you guess? -- "put Wall Street before Main Street."

But wait long enough, and you hear the indispensable passage, the one that transcends everything else he says. "There are no real and fake parts of this country," Obama declares. "We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this nation -- we all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from." America's veterans, he says, "have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America -- they have served the United States of America."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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