Barack Obama knows his background is about as unconventional as Illinois voters will probably ever see in a Senate candidate. He was born in Hawaii, the son of a Kenyan economist and a white mother from Kansas, and spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia. His last name rhymes with Osama. So he begins every campaign speech with the question on the audience's mind: "How does a skinny guy with a funny name win an election?"
His self-effacing confidence and good looks charm the crowds, and the fans he has won have made the 42-year-old Chicago lawyer and three-term state senator the hottest property in this year's Senate races. Obama may be on his way to replacing retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald.
That's in part why Democrats are dreaming for the first time that they can snatch control of the Senate, narrowly held by Republicans. Obama's first G.O.P. opponent, former Goldman Sachs partner Jack Ryan, had already been trailing by as much as 20 points in some polls when his campaign took a fatal blow last week: a judge unsealed four-year-old divorce records in which Ryan's exwife--actress Jeri Ryan of television's Boston Public--claimed that in 1998 he tried to talk her into having public sex with him in various clubs. Four days later, Ryan, who had denied the allegations in legal filings at the time, pulled out of the race. Illinois Republican leaders, who had pressured him to quit, scrambled to find a replacement.
Meanwhile, Obama, a Harvard Law graduate, has energized African-American voters without alienating suburban whites. "I am rooted in the African-American community, but I am not limited to it," he tells audiences. He has also stuck to his liberal positions: he is outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq and touts his legislation to reduce the rate of wrongful executions and crack down on racial profiling.
Seven months ago, the Democrats' quest for the Senate appeared hopeless, and Republicans, who cling to a slim 51-to-48 majority (with one independent), were confidently predicting they would widen that lead. Especially in the Republican-friendly South, Democrats were staring at a wipeout, with five of their Senators--Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, John Breaux of Louisiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia and Bob Graham of Florida--all deciding to retire.
But Democrats have since recruited credible-enough candidates that the party now has a shot at holding on to three or four of the Southern seats--in South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. And in the West, Democrats are hoping to nab the open seats left by the retirement of Republican Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and to take on the vulnerable Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. So suddenly the math has changed: Democrats can see their way to a net gain of two seats, which would give them a slim advantage in the Senate. "We're at the cusp of a victory in November," says Senator Jon Corzine, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. G.O.P. leaders insist that the Democrats' hope is a pipe dream. Most of the seats up for grabs are in G.O.P.-heavy states that Bush won handily in 2000. "They simply cannot blow away the reality," says Senator George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.