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Sen. Obama, Declaring from the Land of Lincoln


Illinois Senator Barack Obama is now an official presidential candidate. He made his formal announcement yesterday in Springfield, Illinois, where he served eight years in the state legislature. Then he flew off to Iowa for a round of town meetings and rallies.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was with him and she filed this report.

MARA LIASSON: Obama announced his candidacy in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the same place where Abraham Lincoln declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Obama, who is tall and slim, wore an overcoat but no hat or gloves in the frigid weather. He said he was running not just to hold an office, but to transform a nation. And he continued the comparisons to Lincoln.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Thousands of people turned out to see him, including Monique Hortenstine(ph), who bundled up her two kids and drove an hour and a half from Effingham, Illinois.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

Ms. MONIQUE HORTENSTINE: We just think he's awesome and we're here to see him. And figured the kids should come for the history. If we have our first African-America president, they can say they were there when he announced.

LIASSON: So far, Obama's message has been thematic without many details. But now that he's a candidate, he'll face much tougher scrutiny.

Sen. OBAMA: Welcome to this importance town hall meeting.

LIASSON: In Cedar Rapids, where thousands of people packed into a high school gym, Obama was asked about issues. First up, Iraq.

Unidentified Man: My question is I know you've proposed to bring troops out of Iraq by March of next year. How do we do that?

LIASSON: Obama has introduced a bill in the Senate that would pull all combat troops from Iraq in a year. But he says he doesn't want to throw in the towel.

Sen. OBAMA: We have genuine responsibilities to the Iraqi people. We should be at least as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: And so...

LIASSON: Obama's opposition to the war from the beginning sets him apart from his chief rival for the nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton. And it gets him the biggest applause wherever he goes. But what animates him most is not the war. It's the cynicism that comes from a broken political system.

Sen. OBAMA: What's been lost is that our politics feels very much like an insider's game. I think people feel that the two parties are splitting the pot and ordinary voters are left out of the process.

LIASSON: Even as he transitions from political phenomenon to political candidate, Obama is still treated like a celebrity. Five hundred reporters showed up for his announcement, and his campaign had to charter a 757 to get him and the press corps to Cedar Rapids, all this 11 months before the Iowa caucuses.

Sen. OBAMA: You know, there was a big crowd today. But you know, let's face it. The novelty is going to wear off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: You're going to be, uhh, it's Obama again. He's coming through town. You know, the ball game's on. I've got other things to do. But that's okay, because what that means is we're going to be able to meet in smaller groups and house parties, and I'm really looking forward to that.

LIASSON: But if Obama's candidacy has staying power, it's unlikely the crowds will ever shrink enough to fit in anyone's living room.

Mara Liasson, NPR News with the Obama campaign in Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Weekend Edition Sunday
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.