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Obama's youth stands as his greatest asset and greatest weakness

WASHINGTON—Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's preliminary decision Tuesday to seek the presidency propels him into the top tier for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and puts him in position to test how much his party and his country hunger for change.

Just 45 years old and two years into his first term in the Senate, Obama brings to the campaign the prospect of a new generation and style of leadership, with less experience in Washington and far fewer ties to the political polarization of the past two decades there.

An Obama campaign also would test whether America is ready for a nonwhite president.

Obama filed papers Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission that allow him to form a committee to raise money and hire staff toward a presidential campaign. He's scheduled a formal announcement of his candidacy for Feb. 10.

In a statement, Obama lamented that "our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions."

Obama's youth and lack of experience in Washington are, at once, among his strongest assets and most glaring weaknesses. Yet while many politicians in similar circumstances invoke the youthful John F. Kennedy, watch for Obama to conjure up a bolder comparison: Abraham Lincoln.

Obama's formal declaration of candidacy will come two days before Lincoln's birthday—in the Illinois state capitol of Springfield, where he and Lincoln both served, rather than his hometown of Chicago. The speech could be in the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln served, though details hadn't been worked out Tuesday.

Obama approaches the campaign with polls showing him in the top ranks of a largely open race for his party's nomination, along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Obama is competitive in each of the first four states that are scheduled to vote for a Democratic nominee next year—he's running fourth in Iowa, second in Nevada, second in New Hampshire and third in South Carolina—according to recent polls by the American Research Group.

Clinton leads in all four states, but she commands only about a third of total support. She's expected to declare her intentions soon.

Other announced Democratic candidates include Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson is expected to announce his candidacy later this month. All score lower in early polls than Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

So far, being the new face with the new message of bipartisan cooperation has helped Obama, particularly as many Democrats have soured on Washington politicians who endorsed the Iraq war at the outset and might be portrayed as too ingrained in Washington to change.

Indeed, Obama sought Tuesday to use his short time in Washington to his advantage, distancing himself from the partisan politics that many Americans despise and subtly criticizing fellow Democrats for going along. It also was noteworthy that he didn't criticize President Bush by name, a staple of Democratic politics.

He'd disappointed some Democrats when he appeared Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" and sidestepped questions about whether he'd support cutting off money to force an end to the Iraq war.

"He wasn't very good," said an Illinois Democrat who's supporting Obama and asked for anonymity because he was criticizing him. "Too cautious. He's starting to sound too much like a senator."

Obama also faces other challenges and questions, including his race and how he'd flesh out his national agenda.

Traditional politics in America would argue that the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya still faces skepticism, if not hostility.

Yet in an age when Tiger Woods leads pro golf, Oprah Winfrey dominates the airwaves, and Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice take turns as the country's chief diplomat, those barriers might be falling. And Obama could appeal to many Americans eager to show that they and their country have moved beyond racism, especially since he presents himself as a leader determined to move beyond conventional political divisions.

While Obama doesn't shy from his heritage, he doesn't want to be marginalized as a "black candidate" who appeals primarily to black voters.

That's part of the rationale for launching his campaign in Springfield, according to Illinois Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak for the campaign.

A speech on the South Side of Chicago could draw an overwhelmingly black audience. A Springfield event would draw a more diverse group.

Those pushing for Springfield gave two other reasons:

_It would draw attention to Obama's seven years in the Illinois Senate before his election to the U.S. Senate. His campaign aides have found that focus groups of voters were favorably impressed with his time in the Illinois legislature, a possible counter to complaints that his two years in Congress leave him too inexperienced.

_It could invite comparisons to Lincoln, who served eight years in the Illinois legislature. And Lincoln served only two years in Congress, two less than Obama will have served by Inauguration Day 2009.

For more on Obama's campaign online, go to http://www.barackobama.com

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Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail sthomma@mcclatchydc.com.)

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