COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The holiday season is upon us and the word is Barack. Everywhere I go, I get the same question: ``What about Barack Obama?''
The Illinois senator has penetrated the American psyche in a big way. He's the season's meme, a love virus that's infecting the nation -- even south of the Mason-Dixon and especially among the maidens.
Women listen rapturously when I describe meeting Obama after the 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech that tattooed his name on the nation's brain. You'd think by their laser focus that I was disclosing the secret to reversing gravity.
Men are curious, but more skeptical. ``What about his Muslim connections?'' one fellow asked at a recent holiday party. A woman standing next to me answered first.
``His father was a Muslim, but he was raised a Christian,'' she asserted with authority. ``But I don't really care what he is.''
The woman said she's read both of his books and has an ``Obama '08'' bumper sticker on her car. ``I never do that,'' she said, as though confessing to a sudden and inexplicable urge to smoke crack.
Obama's father, in fact, was a Muslim in his native Kenya, where he was also an economist. But Obama hardly knew his father, who, upon completion of his studies at Harvard, returned to Kenya without his wife and son, then 2. Afterward, Obama saw his father only once -- for a month when he was 10 -- and otherwise was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by his mother and grandparents.
He was not raised a Muslim. But, yes, his middle name is Hussein, as Republicans can't stop mentioning. And, yes, his first name rhymes with Iraq. And, yes, his last name rhymes with Osama.
Somewhere in there is a thread of poetic destiny.
In any case, everybody's talking about Obama. In South Carolina, the fourth state in the Democratic Party's nominating schedule after the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, he would be a serious player.
Presidential primaries here are open. Thirty percent of the population is black and women love him.
Pundits describe Obama with words such as: authentic, intelligent, educated, friendly, eloquent, honest, compelling, transcendent, rock star.
I'm weary of Obama-the-rock-star. In 24/7 celebrity America, everybody's a rock star. Rudy Giuliani is one. So is John McCain. But Obama does have that thing that comes along only rarely: It.
Whateveritis, you know it when you feel it.
He's the melting pot's pajamas. With roots in Africa, Indonesia and the Midwest, he's half-black, half-white; half-Muslim, half-Christian, by birth if not in practice. Part Horatio Alger, Bobby Kennedy and Harry Belafonte, he's an American deus ex machina. Black enough for blacks -- white enough for whites -- he's the bowl of porridge that's juuuuuuust right.
But does he habla espanol?
Even his approach to issues is neither black nor white, but something in between. He's a Democrat, of course, and, as U.S. senator, has voted 97 percent of the time with his party. At some point his worshipers will have to apply objective standards to his positions.
But he's also an implementarian. When it comes to policy, his central question seems to be: Does it work?
While speaking recently to an evangelical audience gathered in Pastor Rick ``The Purpose Driven Life'' Warren's megachurch -- a water-parting event in itself -- Obama said that ``abstinence and fidelity, although the ideal, may not always be the reality. ... If condoms and potentially things like microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, then they should be made more widely available.'' He received a standing ovation.
If Obama seems too good to be true, he can't be blamed. He has been fashioned by the people's wishes into something of a savior. Like the face of Jesus that appears in a slice of pizza, he's in part an invention of need, his immense popularity testament to the despair many feel from years of bitter partisanship and a war without end.
Can he be the one to salvage this wreck?
The world is a dangerous place for those in whom much hope is invested, and that's a heap of expectation piled on Obama's plate. If he decides to make a run, he will have his spirit tested.
May the force be with him.