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Fans flock to Obama in Bay Area

San Francisco Chronicle – October 26, 2006

Fans flock to Obama in Bay Area

by Steven Winn

Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois who has much of the country wondering if he’ll run for president in 2008, shot through the Bay Area on Wednesday and proved to be a sizzling draw.

Here to promote his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” with press interviews and an enormous lunchtime book-signing at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, Obama attracted a crowd of 1,200 people who paid $125 each to hear the senator speak for 10 minutes and then wait in a very long line to shake his hand and have their books signed. The highly produced event played like a campaign-stop dry run.

“When the American people pay attention, good things happen,” he said in his short speech. “Our instincts are good.” Obama said people were tired of the “slash and burn” style of politics of recent years and are searching for “common values and common ideals.” The country, he said, “is in a serious mood.”

The cameras almost never stopped clicking and flashing. Obama, who is lean, strikingly handsome and easy with his incandescent smile, joked that he’d have to ice his arm down after the book signings. In addition to his enormous popularity, he has built a reputation as a centrist Democrat who can work with Republicans and not demonize them.

Obama, 45, conceded Sunday on “Meet the Press” that he has “thought about the possibility” of a 2008 presidential bid, though he said repeatedly on Wednesday that he would make up his mind after next month’s midterm elections. His wife, Michelle, would be his main adviser on the matter, he said.

The buzz among the adoring Marin crowd was that Obama would trump front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. A vendor was selling “Obama for President” buttons — three for $10 — outside the Marin auditorium.

“I think he has a chance to change this country,” said Jackie DeRamon, 43, of San Rafael. “He’s got the innovation of thought. Most of the other politicians — they’re not thinking.”

Jennifer Jackson, a 20-year-old student at Dominican College, was standing far back in the line and already grinning with anticipation at meeting one of her heroes. She, like many people, first became aware of Obama when he gave an acclaimed speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“Ever since then, I’ve been following him,” Jackson said, “buying all the magazines and things he’s featured in.” She held a copy of the recent Time magazine issue that had a picture of the Illinois freshman senator on the cover with the headline, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.”

To Jackson, he’s not like other politicians. “He’s not such a dominating male figure,” she said. The fact that he, like her, is African American is “a source of hope for me that perseverance can pay off.”

Born in Hawaii to a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama had a peripatetic childhood. His father left the family when his son was 2 years old. Obama spent part of his youth in Kansas with his grandparents and lived in Indonesia for four years after his mother remarried. He has admitted to “self-destructive behaviors” in high school, including the use of cocaine and marijuana.

There’s no Clintonian parsing of the truth here. The acknowledgments reflect a conviction that people crave what Obama calls “authenticity” in their public figures. “There are little pieces of everybody in me,” he said during a television taping at KGO.

Soft-spoken, self-contained and measured in both thought and gesture, Obama politely deflected any direct questions about his possible White House aspirations. At times during his brief Bay Area media blitz, he seemed almost numbed by the steady drumbeat of questions about his plans. “I’m the flavor of the month,” he said. “This is a celebrity culture, and that culture has to be fed.”

But Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004 and has served less than two years in Washington, D.C., also is the author of this latest chapter in his life. “The Audacity of Hope” might not serve up a “10-point plan on every issue,” as he put it, but the book does contain an extensive introduction to his views on energy, education, immigration, the role of religion in public life, the economics of globalization, and other issues that are sure to figure in any presidential campaign. It also airs Obama’s self-scrutiny as a husband, father (he has two daughters, ages 5 and 8) and someone who is “chronically restless.”

In an interview with The Chronicle, Obama demonstrated the kind of balanced “process thinking” he said he believes people want to hear from politicians. Although he opposed Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and now favors a “phased withdrawal” of troops beginning soon, Obama said, “I didn’t completely discount the arguments the administration was making. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. They certainly coveted weapons of mass destruction, even if they didn’t have them yet. They had been dismissive of U.N. inspectors. So an argument could be made for an invasion.”

All that was a prelude to Obama’s overarching point: “Just because you are weighing issues and trying to listen to people doesn’t mean at some point you’re not going to have to make a decision.” His opposition to the Iraq war, he emphasized, was “clearly established going into my race for the Senate.”

One of the questions Obama kept getting asked was what he made of the hype that has engulfed him so quickly. “It’s a high-class problem to have,” he joked on KGO radio talk show host Ronn Owens’ program before discounting it as hype.

One caller told Obama he was too young and inexperienced to run. “I appreciate the advice,” he replied. Another caller gushed, “It’s really cool to be talking to the next president.” Obama signed books and posed for photographs during commercial breaks.

When the hourlong radio interview was over, Owens fought his way through a scrum of dazzled staffers, family members and reporters from other media outlets who had gathered outside his studio.

“He did it,” Owens exulted of his guest. “He broke the Jerry Mathers record.” Mathers, who starred on TV’s “Leave It to Beaver” as a child, drew a similar throng when he appeared on Owens’ program.

Obama may lament the show business aspect of politics. But like anyone else who is running — or might be running — for president, that’s an inescapable part of the process.

“You’re in the public eye, and people ask you the same questions over and over again, and you start giving rote answers,” he said. “You become almost a caricature of yourself.”

Obama paused and took a breath. “I do think people are interested, in some sense, that you are talking from your gut.