Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., chats with Illinois Democratic state Sen. George Shadid during a stop in Pekin, Ill., for a town hall meeting. The Hawaii native's star has risen since his election.

Obama defers spotlight

The Punahou grad is a low-key
senator as he learns the ropes
but a star elsewhere

PEKIN, Ill. » The line forms the moment Sen. Barack Obama is done speaking, a procession of admirers clutching copies of his book, magazines, scraps of paper, disposable cameras and one homemade American flag. It doesn't take long before someone pops the question.

An elderly woman looks up with wide eyes. The lanky senator, a Hawaii native and graduate of Punahou School, leans in to hear her amid the din of the town hall meeting.

"In 2008 or some other time," she says, "will we get a chance to work for you for president?"

Obama grins, but demurs. He is not running for president. Not in 2008, at least.

His Senate career is just six months old. And six months before that, few people in America had even heard of this man who was just introducing himself to voters in Illinois.

But one year has passed since Obama's star-making turn at the Democratic convention, and the senator is now a player in two worlds: He's a deliberately low-key newcomer to Capitol Hill, careful to avoid upstaging the powerful old bulls on their home turf. But he's also an A-list celebrity, courted by everyone from Oprah to Gorbachev.

On a hot July day, Obama has come to this blue-collar community just south of Peoria, seat of a county he and President Bush carried by equally lopsided margins. He's recognized everywhere.

"It's been sort of a whirlwind," Obama says, sipping an iced tea. "Deserved or undeserved, I've received a lot of attention and that can translate into political influence."

That's the Washington way. In the Senate, the seniority system is still a reality and powerful committee chairmen and party leaders jealously guard the perks and prerogatives that come only with time. Obama knows he has to wait.

So he's taken on the age-old role prescribed for Senate freshmen: He's the diligent, state-oriented lawmaker, devoted to the unglamorous issues that often matter most to folks back home.

He has pushed to spend money to modernize locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, squeeze out more dollars for Illinois highways and create tax credits for ethanol fueling stations.

He also has focused on reported inequities in disability compensation for veterans in Illinois. And with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, he successfully proposed providing free meals for soldiers and Marines in military hospitals for extended stays while recovering from injuries received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, Obama has ventured out a bit -- as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he recently visited the United Nations to press for an end to the slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan. And he will travel to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan next month.

Obama, the only black member of the U.S. Senate, knows no matter what he does, the expectations in some circles are in the stratosphere.

"In some circumstances, there probably are people who expect me to have solved the world's problems already ... ," he says, "but I think most voters are satisfied if they know I'm thinking about them."

Obama has conducted 26 town meetings, including this one, and returns to Chicago every weekend to be with his family. He and his wife, Michelle, prefer to raise their two young daughters there rather than Washington because of "the lack of pretense."

The message is clear: There's no danger of Potomac fever.

His strategy -- being a student, not a showboat -- is wise, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has followed Obama.

"I think people wondered if he would continue to be high profile or do what he said he would do -- take a back seat as a new senator and as a freshman try to learn more," he says. "To his credit, he's done the latter."

That may well be why Obama, who receives about 250 invitations a week, says yes to the American Legion in Springfield and no to Mikhail Gorbachev's request to attend the 5th World Summit of Nobel Peace laureates in Rome.

But Obama, who turns 44 next month, can't escape the cameras. Nor has he tried.

He graced the cover of Newsweek and posed for celebrity photographers Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon -- before he even took office. He has popped up in People magazine.

Obama's life also has changed in one other big way this past year.

While many senators are millionaires when elected, Obama joined the club last winter, courtesy of a $1.9 million three-book contract.

Obama says his party needs to do a better job of getting its message out to voters.

"I do agree that the Democrats have been intellectually lazy in failing to take the core ideals of the Democratic Party and adapting them to circumstances," he says.

He says the Democrats should "take it big instead of making it small" as they speak about globalization, the need for a tough foreign policy and the importance of faith and family.

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