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What's driving Obama-mania?

Voters are keen on a less caustic brand of politics and the Illinois senator's own compelling personal narrative.

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With standing room crowds chanting for the star to show, Sunday's Democratic fundraiser could have been a rock concert. But it was only Sen. Barack Obama's first visit to the nation's first primary state.

If Senator Obama should jump into the Democratic presidential primary, where he is now ranked just behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in recent polls, Democrats in the land of retail politics wonder if there's a living room big enough to hold the throngs who'd come to hear him.

"Right now, he's a rock star. Getting 1,500 people out on a Sunday afternoon ... says something different is going on here," says Jim Craig, former Democratic leader in the New Hampshire House.

So what's driving Obama-mania?

It isn't a single set of issues such as the war or the economy. Rather, the attraction seems to be a mix of Obama's own compelling personal narrative and many voters' desire for a less caustic brand of politics.

"It's the sense that you're in the presence of someone who is touched with the gift of grace," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Obama, Illinois' junior senator, exemplifies the hope that there's some way to triumph over the intense polarization of American politics, he adds.

A barely known state lawmaker and community organizer in Chicago, Obama shot to superstar status after an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention in Boston. With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, he embodies two racial cultures deeply at odds in American history.

The buzz about Obama has only continued to grow. He was the most requested speaker on the 2006 campaign trail, appearing with candidates in more than 30 states. He has also sold more than 350,000 copies of his second bestseller, "The Audacity of Hope."

But the senator himself is suspicious of the hype. "I don't want to be driven into these decisions simply because of the opportunity," he said in a briefing with reporters before Sunday's event.


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