PROFILE: Obama's star rose fast with eloquent speech, steady presence
Oct 28, 2008, 14:58 GMT
Colleen McCormick and her daughter, Gracie, 18 months, of Brighton (L) look on as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama makes voter contact phone calls from the Obama for President office in Brighton, Colorado, USA, 26 October 2008. EPA/JUDY DEHAAS/POOL
Barack Obama's enigmatic smile has seen him through many difficult times - even when he was just 6 years old, an outsider in an alien neighbourhood in Jakarta, Indonesia.
He looked different from the other children, who would bully him and pass racial remarks. One day they ambushed him and dunked him in a river.
Obama came up for air, laughing. Instead of picking a fight, he chose to make friends and worked his way to becoming an insider.
This unique quality was to hold him in good stead - whether as a child in Indonesia struggling to fit in, an Ivy League graduate working in Chicago's desperately poor neighbourhoods, a political greenhorn in the Illinois Senate or the country's first African American candidate of a major party for president.
In 21 months of gruelling campaigning, he has fended off personal attacks without blinking. Accused of being un-American, untrustworthy and a secret Muslim - as if believing in Islam were a terrible thing - Obama responded with uncommon ease and no traces of rancour or anger, which seem to eat away at his Republican rival John McCain, 72.
Whether it was addressing a nation wrestling with a crippling economic collapse or facing his mocking opponent in the presidential debates, Obama, 47, remained preternaturally calm, his gaze steadfast. And always, the smile.
But the smile reveals little - while he comes across as affable, his critics say that he seems inaccessible, that people don't really know him. He has also been derided for his complex ethnicity and his progressiveness.
So, who is the real Obama, the man who could be the country's first black president?
Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas who met at the University of Hawaii. He was to say later that they 'weren't well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.'
This lineage ensured that Obama sees the world in both black and white, perspectives that are important in a country where black America and white America are often completely separate spaces.
His parents separated when he was 2 and were subsequently divorced. His mother remarried and moved to Indonesia, where Obama spent ages 6 through 10. He returned to Hawaii for high school, then went to Columbia University and Harvard law school, where he made headlines as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review - seen as a stepping stone to any number of career opportunities.
He had earlier worked in Chicago as a community organizer with a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighbourhoods. Practicing civil rights law back in Chicago after Harvard, Obama's advocacy work led him to run for the Illinois State Senate, where he served for eight years.
Obama's rise from obscure state legislator to presidential candidate was nothing short of meteoric. In 2004, as the Democratic nominee for a US Senate seat from Illinois, Obama got an unusual opportunity to deliver a prime-time address to the party's national convention.
In words that are now standard components of his presidential stump speech, Obama said: 'There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America.'
Although party leaders placed him on the podium simply to get more exposure for his Senate race, they were bowled over by his ability to command a crowd. Before long, Obama was deployed as a speechmaker on the Democratic fund-raising circuit, cultivating a following that would soon urge him to bid for the presidency as the war in Iraq spiralled out of control.
His eloquence has always won him admirers - even the woman who was to become his wife in 1992, Michelle Obama, who was at first skeptical of the Harvard hotshot who came to intern in her high-power law firm in Chicago.
In early 2007, with mounting US casualties in Iraq eroding Republican fortunes, Obama formed a committee to explore his presidential bid, just days before Senator Hillary Clinton did the same.
For the first time in history, a black man and a woman would battle it out for their party's presidential nomination, a race that went to the bitter end in June, when Obama emerged the winner.
Obama leads in most polls against McCain, buoyed by financial uncertainty and his own reassuring presence that impressed admirers such as Colin Powell, the decorated retired four-star general, Bush's one-time secretary of state and one of the nation's leading Republican figures.
Endorsing Obama, Powell turned the tables on his own party, saying he was uneasy about McCain's erratic reactions during the finance crisis.
Powell, an African American, cited Obama's 'ability to inspire' and called him a 'transformational figure' who could bring about a 'generational change.'