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Obama Gives Dems Story They Crave

By Mark Davis

Hillary Rodham Clinton's unobstructed path to the 2008 Democrat nomination is hereby postponed.

Her worst nightmare may have arrived yesterday in the form of the Barack Obama Presidential Exploratory Committee, whose Web site features the semi-candidate in trademark jacket, crisp shirt and no tie. In a video announcing his intent to test the waters for a month, he says he will reveal his official decision Feb. 10 in Illinois.

Until then, he will travel the country attracting rock star media coverage and enthusiastic crowds. His job - and ours - is to determine whether this is a groundswell of deep, sincere interest in an Obama presidency, or a momentary fad created by an age of media overhype.

One thing is clear: There is hunger for a narrative that differs from the one pundits have regurgitated for years in which Mrs. Clinton is carried to the nomination on a rocket ride of star power, barely breaking a sweat.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa think they can beat Hillary, but they are probably wrong. Only two people could fend off the former first lady: One is Al Gore, and the other is Mr. Obama.

Mr. Gore trumps Mrs. Clinton on substance - his steadfast war opposition would resonate with a Democratic base that might chill to her more vague stances over the years.

But Mr. Obama has it all over Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore on the commodity that most often sways voters - style.

This is not to say that Mr. Obama is all sizzle and no steak. Behind his relaxed smoothness is the prospect of a candidate who can actually deliver on a promise every politician makes - to "change politics."

I stood in the Fleet Center in Boston in the summer of 2004 as he delivered the spellbinding keynote address for the Democrat National Convention that anointed John Kerry. "My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," he said that night as he held the party faithful in his palm coining the term that would title his book. "The audacity of hope," he said, "is God's greatest gift to us ... a belief that there are better days ahead."

Mr. Obama embodies the two things the Democrats must do to improve their chances in 2008. He is not afraid to invoke faith in a party that has become a haven for secularism, and he is prone to measured words in an environment usually filled with ad hominem attacks.

If his résumé seems thin, remember that Mr. Edwards was a one-term senator whom Democrats did not mind placing one heartbeat away from the presidency, and that Mrs. Clinton is not exactly a Senate veteran. Her eight years as first lady accrue to a certain familiarity with the White House environment, but no one should pretend that the presidential spouse experience is remotely like the world of an actual elected official.

The number that will matter most is Mr. Obama's appeal to black voters, who are just over 10 percent of the electorate but nearly one-fourth of the Democrat base. A Clinton run would rely heavily on the 90 percent of blacks who voted for her husband. If they bolt for Mr. Obama, anything is possible.

That is not a certainty. His white mother and a childhood in Hawaii have led some to question just how much black America will rush into Mr. Obama's outstretched arms. But it is instructive that black America loathes Clarence Thomas and loves Bill Clinton. It is the ideas in his head, not the pigment of his skin that will determine his fate.

Taken as a whole, the Mr. Obama candidacy simply looks and feels like something truly different, maybe even special. Subjected to lengthy scrutiny, that may not last long. Or he could be the first black president. The coming months will take this chapter of political theater down one road or the other.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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