Barack Obama, the first-term US senator whose pleas for a more civil, more inspirational political discourse have propelled him at warp speed from obscurity to superstardom, has indicated he is considering making a run for the presidency in 2008.
The Illinois Democrat, whose compelling life story and gentle intelligence make him one of the rare politicians who appeals to Americans of all ideological persuasions, told a television interviewer he was no longer "unequivocally" opposed to a White House run as he has been.
"Given the response I've been getting the past several months, I have thought about the possibility," Mr Obama told NBC's Meet The Press. After next month's mid-term elections, he continued, he would "sit down and consider it".
Even that tentative expression of interest was likely to have an electrifying effect on a country clearly tired of the ideological shouting matches that have left Americans divided, scared and ill-informed about the crises raging around the globe.
Senator Obama's pragmatic approach to coalition-building is also a powerful lure in an election season marked by highly personal, often outrageous attacks by struggling Republican incumbents against their Democratic adversaries.
That explains, perhaps, why last week's Time magazine put Senator Obama on the cover with the tagline, "The Next President". Or why David Brooks, a conservative New York Times commentator, wrote enthusiastically that Mr Obama, who is 45, was "a new type of politician" who might never have a better time to shoot for the most powerful political office on the planet.
Senator Obama is on a sell-out national tour to promote a book, The Audacity of Hope, and capitalising on the attention to promote Democratic candidates for Congress in dozens of close races. Even if he ultimately decides against a White House run in two years, his announcement can only further bolster a Democratic Party whose hopes for retaking control of the House and Senate on 7 November are soaring as scandal-tainted Republicans and the Bush White House see their popularity plummet.
But Senator Obama also carries some of the same sort of charisma that propelled a young John Kennedy into the Presidency in 1960. His is a 21st-century multicultural appeal: the son of a Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas, he has known both poverty and privilege.
He was one of the stars of his class at Harvard Law School, but he has also worked as a social worker and street organiser in Chicago's roughest neighbourhoods, and later practised as a civil rights lawyer.
His political promise has been evident since the moment he stunned the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech emphasising all the things that bind, rather than divide, Americans. When he travelled to the Kenyan village of his father's ancestors in August, attracting vast crowds, he cemented his appeal internationally.
His possible path to a White House run was cleared a little this month when Mark Warner, the popular former governor or Virginia, announced he was not pursuing the Democratic nomination. But the biggest obstacle remains Hillary Clinton, the former first lady turned New York senator, who has looked so far the obvious front-runner and whom Mr Obama regards as an important mentor and ally. Some political pundits postulate a Clinton-Obama ticket for 2008. Others, including many Democratic grassroots activists, feel Mrs Clinton is too divisive a figure to be a good bet in the election. Her support of the Iraq war may prove a liability.Reuse content