WASHINGTON -- After formally announcing his presidential quest in Springfield, Ill., today, Sen. Barack Obama will embark on a grueling, nationwide quest that will test the depth and endurance of his instant celebrity.
Up to now, Obama has largely avoided scrutiny in an orchestrated climb fueled by a compelling personal story and an abundance of raw political talent.
But during a three-day, six-stop campaign swing after Springfield that will take him to Iowa, Chicago and on to New Hampshire, Obama likely will begin facing questions about his scant experience, his inconsistent message and the legitimacy of his claim to be an "outsider."
He also might have to get used to manure on his shoes.
"Not too many politicians know what it's like to get up in the morning after sleeping in a small-town motel in Iowa, it's 10 below zero and you have to be in somebody's barn at 7:30 a.m.," said Bill Carrick, who managed former Rep. Richard Gephardt's campaigns for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2004. "If you don't have discipline and can't hit the źon' button fast, you're in trouble,"
Like other Democratic strategists, Carrick marvels at the trajectory of Obama's rise, unmatched in modern American politics.
By the same token, they warn that what lies ahead for him is brutal and incalculable, a challenge even more daunting than in past primary seasons because of the strong field of aspirants and a front-loaded primary that might already have produced the Democratic nominee a year from now.
For Obama -- or for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- that means winning early after raising enough money, well over $50 million, to compete in as many as 30 caucuses and primaries by February of 2008.
Martin Frost, a former Democratic congressman from Texas and longtime political operative, said the odds are against Obama. He noted the early successes in the presidential quests of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in 1984 and Gephardt in 1988, campaigns in which he was involved. Both failed, and each blamed lack of money.
"The biggest problem is going through the meat-grinder," Frost said. "It is a different ballgame. You're playing at a different level. I don't care who you are ... When you run for president, it is a game with different rules."
Independent pollster Del Ali gives Obama a 50-50 shot at winning the nomination. He said that he is struck by Obama's appeal to Democratic activists, many of whom "don't want to hold their nose as they did with John Kerry and Al Gore in ź04 and 2000."
Ali said Obama has a huge issue in his favor when stacked up to Clinton and Edwards: his early and unequivocal opposition to the Iraq War. Clinton and Edwards both supported the resolution giving the president the authority to invade Iraq.
"Iraq is the main issue in the campaign," said Ali, who has polled for the Post-Dispatch and other news organizations.
People mesmerized by Obama's stentorian voice will be listening more closely now to his words to see what adds up and what doesn't.
Does he have a plan?
For instance, at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting in Washington last week, some of Obama's speech appeared to endorse rhetoric over substance. "They say, well, we want specifics, we want details, we want white papers, we want plans," Obama said. "We've had plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope."
Yet Obama has criticized the White House for insufficient planning in Iraq and his own position on war is rooted in a detailed plan that would remove all combat brigades from Iraq by midnight, March 31, 2008.
Obama will be facing increasing pressure to get beyond spiritual rhetoric about hope in order to keep up with the likes of Edwards. A more experienced politician who has led in early Iowa polls, Edwards proposed a plan for universal health care this week with the blunt admission that it would cost $120 billion and require a tax hike.
Mark Mellman, who has polled for Gephardt and other leading Democrats, said he believed Obama could win the nomination although he wouldn't regard him as the favorite.
To be successful, Mellman said, Obama "is going to have to refine his message so people will have a sense of not only who he is and the values he represents, but also what his positions are. I think people find him extraordinarily attractive, but they just don't know who he is."
Inexperience may hurt
In discussing Obama's liabilities, people speak more of his inexperience than his race.
But without question, race will be a prominent subtext to his candidacy, and Obama's skill in handling the questions will be among keys to his success.
Charlton McIlwain, a co-director of New York University's Project on Race in Political Communication, said he believes the challenge for Obama will be overcoming stereotypes of African-American candidates as running only on behalf of other blacks. McIlwain said Obama's success will be measured not just by his words but by what he doesn't say.
For instance, McIlwain said, Obama will be tested when race-related accusations or issues surface. That was the case last week when Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential aspirant himself, referred to Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Obama dismissed Biden's remarks as an inadvertent slip of the tongue.
As McIlwain sees it, Obama will be better off dealing with "implicit racial attacks," intentional or not, by letting others talk for him. "If he's the one who's looked at to constantly respond, to say that something is or is not racism, it could make people think about race more than he would want them to."
Polls show Obama has put himself in a position to succeed. His favorable ratings are roughly equivalent to other White House hopefuls, but far more voters have no opinion of Obama than of other contestants because they don't know him.
In other words, Obama has an opportunity in the months ahead to add to his legions of supporters, among them many young voters, many new converts who haven't made up their mind.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow Democrat, said is not ready to place bets on Obama winning. And unless someone has been through a presidential campaign, it isn't possible to say whether they have the strength to withstand the pressure.
But Durbin watched up close as his state's junior senator achieved political stardom in record time, and he believes that Obama has talents that others in the race can't match.
"He has the ability to first attract a crowd and then to fire them up in ways I've never seen in another politician. His message is refreshing and new, and the people who show up at his events are not just the party faithful but new faces," Durbin said.
"When it's all said and done, I think he can be the nominee. Regardless, he'll engage people that otherwise would not have been in the process," he added.