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The Cedar Rapids Gazette - For Obama , it's Not Politics as Usual

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Location: Fairfax, IA

The Cedar Rapids Gazette - For Obama , it's Not Politics as Usual

By Rod Boshart

Barack Obama is bringing his 2008 Democratic presidential bid to Iowans' doorsteps. Obama, 46, a superstar U.S. senator who rose from the ranks as a community organizer, is taking Iowa's tradition of retail politicking to a new level by personally knocking on doors at homes, businesses and even farmsteads in search of supporters in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The Illinois senator has opened an unprecedented 33 field offices around the state and spent 52 days in Iowa since announcing his presidential bid. His goal: to convince voters he is a different kind of politician who can bring unifying change to Washington.

"My experience, not only as a U.S. senator, but as a state legislator, a civil rights lawyer, as a professor, as a community organizer, I think that mix of experience allows me, maybe, to speak to people in ways they can identify with, and I think that's part of the reasons we're generating such a good response," he said. "Most politicians are trained to talk a lot, but they're not always that good at listening to people," Obama said in an interview during a recent Eastern Iowa campaign swing.

"One of the first things I learned as an organizer was to find out what people are going through in their lives and not make assumptions about what issues are important to them," he added. "Usually, I found, that the problem in Washington is that there's just not a real good connect to people on the ground."

Obama and his Iowa supporters believe he is making that connection one handshake at a time now that the media frenzy over his entry has died down. He is pushing a message of hope as an African-American candidate with a viable shot at becoming president.

"Without a doubt, he brings a freshness to the race, a new perspective to the race," said Gordon Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer who chaired the Iowa Democratic Party from 2002 to 2004 and now backs Obama's 2008 bid. "I am absolutely convinced that Senator Obama is the candidate with the best chance against any of the Republicans in the field," he said.

That sentiment has been echoed from the famous - Obama has elicited the fundraising help of Oprah Winfrey in California and the celebrity power of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker at a Johnson County event - to the average Iowans, such as Iowa farmer Gary Lamb, who puts Obama in the same leadership class as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

"It's become increasingly clear we need a new vision, a new direction and a new kind of leadership in our nation's capital," said Lamb, "someone who has the common sense and good judgment to lead the nation forward."

Lamb, of Chelsea, believes Obama - who has crusaded for ethics reform at the state and national levels - has shown himself to be a person who can "challenge this culture of corruption" in Washington.

Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. He moved with his family to mostly Muslim Indonesia after his mother remarried. He lived there for four years before he returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents and attend Punahou Academy.

Obama graduated from Columbia University with a political science degree and moved to Chicago's South Side, where he worked as a community organizer in an area hit hard by plant closures in the steel industry. He later earned a law degree with high honors from Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.

After teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama spent seven years in the Illinois Senate before running a successful bid to the U.S. Senate in 2004. He landed on the national stage with an attention-grabbing speech at the Democratic National Convention that same year.

Now, locked in a hardfought three-way contest in Iowa with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Obama has stressed his opposition to the Iraq war dating back to 2002, his appeal to a new generation of voters, his vote-getting charisma in "red" states, and his support from "whispering" Republicans who privately tell him he has their support. He deflects criticism of his limited experience in Washington by pointing to his youngish look, telling an Amana crowd recently that his protruding ears "make me look like Opie."

At the same time, Obama concedes he likely will have to sharpen his contrast of key differences between himself and Clinton to halt poll numbers that show the New York senator forging a lead in Iowa that mirrors results in national surveys. "The key for me is to make sure that I'm talking about issues and not talking about personalities, taking gratuitous shots at people, not distorting people's records," he said. "I try to make sure that I'm not taking people's comments out of context."

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