Don't cast that ballot just yet

In politics, what goes up fast often comes down just as fast.
It's something to keep in mind in watching Sen. Barack Obama's nascent presidential campaign.
Three months ago, he was an attractive freshman senator with a promising future. Now, after one of the quickest rises in recent presidential history, he's become Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's top 2008 Democratic challenger.
But former Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark could tell Obama about the pitfalls. Both led the Democratic polls at one point in 2003, and both wound up as 2004 also-rans.
Obama has seemed destined for political stardom since his stunning speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention made him a national figure before he'd even finished a jump from the Illinois to the U.S. Senate.
Candidate of the future
Intelligent and charismatic with a message of national unity that appeals to the millions disgusted with today's partisanship, he has a better chance of projecting himself as a candidate of the future than most of his rivals.
As an early Iraq war foe, Obama shares the position of most Democrats. With his unusual heritage of a black African father and a white Kansas-born mother, plus a childhood largely spent in Hawaii and Indonesia, he brings a background of global multiculturalism that could appeal to minorities and younger voters.
But once past his unique demographic background and personal appeal, his candidacy may raise as many questions as answers:
Heading the list is his lack of experience, two years in the U.S. Senate after seven in the Illinois Senate. No nominee of either party has been so new to high-level politics since Gen. Dwight Eisenhower -- and he gained invaluable experience as the top U.S. commander in World War II.
In 1960, many regarded John F. Kennedy as inexperienced. But he had been in the Senate eight years, the House six years and wrote a best-selling analysis of international affairs 20 years earlier.
Americans may be reluctant to pick someone with so little national security experience -- especially after the past six years. But Obama's slim record also means he's likely to cast fewer controversial votes than longer-serving rivals.
Obama has never passed the kind of tests most candidates face before they seek the presidency, though he lost a 2000 House bid.
His only statewide race was pretty much a cakewalk. His chief primary rival self-destructed over personal issues, and Obama easily won the general election over archconservative Alan Keyes, who wasn't even from Illinois.
As a result, he's never faced the scrutiny presidential candidates inevitably encounter. Last month, he admitted a mistake in buying property from an indicted fundraiser; he also gave an internship to a son of the man's business associate. His political success has been accompanied by financial success, including three book deals and a sharp increase in pay for his attorney wife's hospital management job.
But there's no way of knowing if he has hidden problems that could bedevil a presidential bid. If he does, we're certain to find out about them in the coming months.
He's untested in the rough-and-tumble give-and-take of modern presidential politics. By all signs, he's smart and quick on his feet. But one never knows how a potential candidate will perform until he is forced to do so.
Neither major party has ever nominated a black candidate. Indeed, he's only the third popularly elected black senator. Most Americans say they'd vote for a black, but racist attitudes have proven hard to poll.
He faces considerable competition from other Democratic war foes. Former Sen. John Edwards, who has long since renounced his vote to authorize the war, has been running for months as a war critic. He has a strong base in Iowa, which will likely hold the first caucuses next January.
Sens. Chris Dodd, who is running, and 2004 nominee John Kerry, who may run, advocate cutting off funds for the troop increase, something Obama has not yet endorsed. Even Clinton, who has not renounced her 2002 vote for the war, has urged a cap to U.S. troop strength in Iraq.
Obama has many strengths. He's smart, well-spoken, charismatic and well-known. He can raise a lot of money. But it's far from certain that the Democrats will be choosing solely next year between a freshman black senator and a former first lady.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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