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Obama is ready to enter race for president

Barack Obama, the Democrat senator who has emerged as the brightest new star of US politics, has at last dropped any pretence and indicated for the first time that he intends to run for the presidency in 2008.

In a low-key video statement posted on his website, he told supporters he has taken the first step of forming an exploratory committee for a White House campaign, leaving nobody in any doubt that he will indeed join the field of Democrat candidates for his party's presidential nomination. He said he plans to make a formal declaration of his candidacy on 10 February in his home state of Illinois.

Doubts persist about the viability of Senator Obama, who at 45 has served only two years in the Senate and has scant experience of government at national level. But his decision - coming one day after the Martin Luther King holiday - was heavy with historical significance, as an ultimately successful outcome would make him the first African-American president.

It also promises to deliver an unusually intriguing contest for the Democratic nomination, with Mr Obama likely to be in direct competition with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former first lady, currently the front-runner in polls among Democrat voters, is expected to announce her intention to run shortly. She in turn would be seeking to become the country's first woman president.

Mr Obama, who was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, was a law professor in Chicago before being elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996. In 2004, he came to national prominence with a widely admired speech at the Democratic Convention in New York. Months later, he was elected for the first time to the US Senate.

Cloaked in political celeb-rity from his first day in Washington DC, Mr Obama tried to keep a low profile for months and repeatedly repelled questions about a possible bid for the White House. His popularity has continued to swell, however, thanks in part to the publication late last year of the second of two autobiographies, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

Other Democrats who have already either formed an exploratory committee or declared their candidacies for 2008 include the former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, the former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and the Connecticut senator Chris Dodd.

Following the declaration on 10 February, Mr Obama is expected to open a headquarters in Chicago, a city also likely to provide much of his support when he begins lobbying for the $100m or more he will need to fight Ms Clinton and others.

A liberal who is pro-gay and pro-gun control, Mr Obama has long opposed war in Iraq and will try to make a virtue of his lack of experience by casting himself as a fresh face.

"Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions," he said.