Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Barack Obama may be just what Democrats need: a presidential candidate with charm and no history
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Could the next occupant of the White House be someone who is literally an African-American, born in Hawaii of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, with a name at least one TV pundit has confused with that of Osama bin Laden? I ask only because Barack Obama, US senator for all of 17 months, has suddenly become the hottest outsider tip in the Democratic presidential stakes.

I first saw him in action in July 2004, when he delivered the keynote address at the convention which nominated John Kerry. That in itself was pretty remarkable. Senator Obama wasn't even a national figure then, merely a young Illinois politician who had impressed in the state legislature. But there was already a buzz around him, and when he spoke that night in Boston you could see why.

Mr Obama is slender, almost fragile. He is charming and mild-mannered, the least threatening politician you could imagine. Like Colin Powell, he has that priceless gift of making Americans feel good about themselves - that the old demons of race have been overcome. Like Bill Clinton, he has an aura of star power.

Most important, in this season before the presidential season, when facts need not interfere with theorising, he comes across as the answer to the problems of his party - united only in a burning, all-consuming desire to get the Republicans out.

Imagine you are a Democrat contemplating the 2008 options. Hillary Clinton? Fine, but can she win the presidency when more than 50 per cent of Americans say they would never vote for her? John Kerry? Please, not again. Al Gore? He says he won't, but if he does change his mind then which Al Gore will show up - the suddenly fashionable eco-warrior, or the ineffably dreary candidate of 2000? Or what about Joe Biden or Chris Dodd, worthy Senators both, but who have been around about as long as the Washington Monument?

At which point the armchair political generals turn their gaze to Barack Obama. He is a new face, untainted by staleness or scandal - or, for that matter, by controversial views on any issue. He hasn't been around long enough to leave a paper trail of Senate votes that can be used against him. In political terms he is a blank sheet of paper on which Democrats can write what they please.

He also has that priceless gift of making platitudes sound profound. "There's not a liberal America or a conservative America," he said in the keynote speech, "only the United States of America." He talks of "replacing the politics of fear with the politics of hope". From anyone else, it would be political pap. With his background, Mr Obama can spin such sentiments into gold.

Ah, you will say, but he's too inexperienced. How can someone who's never been a governor, who's been in the political major leagues for under two years, seriously contemplate running for the most powerful post on earth? The answer is simple: that is the American way.

Critics complain that he prefers press conferences and speechifying to the nuts and bolts of lawmaking - which is exactly what they said about one Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy when he decided to seek the White House. And Kennedy, by the way, was only 43 when he won; Mr Obama would be 47 on inauguration day in January 2009.

Youth, in short, is no handicap. Winning is all about being in the right place at the right time. He could wait until 2012, but the political tide waits for no man. A decade down the line, he may have turned into another John Kerry. So will he throw his hat in the ring? "At this stage, I haven't changed my mind from previous demurrals," he told the Washington Post, a "denial" that leaves the door wide open. There are other hints too. Like other presidential aspirants, he's written one book (a bestseller) about his family history, while a second setting out his political views is in the works.

Sooner or later, undoubtedly, Barack Obama will seek the presidency - and it may be very soon indeed.