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Obama kicks off book tour while mulling future presidential run

Jill Zuckman
Chicago Tribune

While Sen. Barack Obama launches the most public of book tours, with appearances on Oprah, the "Today Show," "Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press," he is also more intensively examining whether to run for president in 2008, reaching out to Democratic operatives and trying to reconcile the demands of a national campaign on his family.

WASHINGTON--While Sen. Barack Obama launches the most public of book tours, with appearances on Oprah, the "Today Show," "Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press," he is also more intensively examining whether to run for president in 2008, reaching out to Democratic operatives and trying to reconcile the demands of a national campaign on his family.

Obama, D-Ill., has been having quiet conversations with colleagues and friends about a prospective White House run, but a key concern is whether his wife, Michelle, would support it and whether he could manage the time away from their two young daughters.

"He has gotten the presidential bug bite," said Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000. "Barack is constantly calling, he's constantly talking to people. He's not calling me to check on the weather. I'm not saying he's in, but he's checking the water. He's having lots of conversations." Brazile said she is scheduled to talk politics with Obama over dinner shortly after Election Day.

Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois's senior Democratic senator and a strong proponent of an Obama presidential bid, said his colleague has learned more about international affairs and the workings of the federal government in his brief Senate career than most governors who run for president. Staying in the Senate, Durbin said, will only provide opponents with more targets as Obama continues to cast votes.

"I said to him, `Do you really think sticking around the Senate for four more years and casting a thousand more votes will make you more qualified for president?'" Durbin said. "The critical element that remains that he has to face is whether he is willing to be separated from his family for longer periods of time and I think he is staring that right in the face."

He's also drawing plenty of stares from scores of fans who have rushed to have him sign a copy of his new book, "The Audacity of Hope." The signings kicked off Tuesday in Chicago. A round of applause greeted him as he entered Borders on the second stop of the day. Hundreds of people followed a blue line that began forming at 6 a.m. and snaked in and out of racks of CDs.

"For me, there's no one else of interest," said Cheryl Hammock, 60. "I hope he's the next president."

That is just the kind of talk that fans the speculation about him running.

But David Axelrod, Obama's political consultant, said people should not read too much into a publicity tour crafted by his publisher to promote his book.

"He is not initiating calls on this," Axelrod said. "People call him all the time and he gives them a respectful hearing. I really don't think he's going to focus on this question at all until after Nov. 7."

Other political professionals, however, expressed skepticism that Obama's treatise on how America can move beyond its divisions to find common ground could be considered anything other than a campaign platform.

"There's a political connection between the book he's written and the campaign he will run," said Tom Rath, the Republican National Committeeman in New Hampshire. "It's awfully hard to go into some of these places and do what he's doing and say it's all about the book."

Obama has drawn national attention since he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, won his Senate seat, and came to Washington. From the day of his arrival, there has been at least simmering speculation about a presidential run, and his appeal has only grown.

Just two years into a Senate career, but with a much higher and more positive profile than most senators, Obama also has been raising prodigious amounts of money and earning other political capital by campaigning for fellow Democrats. During a 12-day period in October, he raised $2 million alone, aides said.

Yet the book will focus almost exclusively on him, providing him with millions of dollars worth of free publicity, largely in non-confrontational, friendly forums. If the book is popular - and already it is No. 15 on the Amazon.com list - it could help him in ways that Sen. John McCain's best-selling memoir, "Faith of Our Fathers," fueled his presidential campaign in 2000.

"It takes it to the next level, it gives you a platform and it gives you a little cover for testing the presidential waters," said Dean Spiliotes, a political science professor at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. "You can go to all the places but say, `Hey, I'm just talking about my book right now.'"

While playing the role of senator-author one day, Obama is often headlining political events the next. On Monday, Obama flew to Indianapolis with Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., to raise money for three Democratic candidates in some of the nation's most competitive House races. Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said they talked about races around the country and what needed to be done over the next three weeks_not about a presidential bid.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Obama has done everything Democratic leaders have asked him to do, traveling to 20 or 30 states this year.

"He's the star. He is in such demand," Schumer said. "He is in greater demand than any other person that we have to offer."

And in campaigning for others, Obama is also subtly campaigning for himself.

"He's got the book, Oprah, Russert - his time intellectually and emotionally is about the elections and about the book," Emanuel said. "That doesn't mean he's not considering it. A lot of people are talking to him. You can't go to the airport without seeing it - it's on the cover of Time."

Indeed, Obama's face fills the cover of Time magazine with dark black letters asserting "Why Barack Obama Could be the Next President." Sunday, he will appear on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, following a long week of book and media appearances, including Charlie Rose, "Hannity & Colmes" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

In between, Obama will campaign for Chicago native Deval Patrick, the Democratic nominee for governor in Massachusetts, help House candidates in Philadelphia and rally for Jim Pederson for Senate in Arizona, to name just a few stops.

Obama partisans insist that the senator is simply trying to do his part to help out, and the publicity just happens to be ginned up by his publisher. But it comes at a time when his statements about his presidential ambitions appear to be shifting substantially.

Last January, on "Meet the Press," Obama told Russert, "I will serve out my full six-year term," adding that his thinking had not changed since he took office.

"So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?" Russert asked.

"I will not," Obama said.

In May, he told the Tribune that "there are people who think I should make an announcement tomorrow that I'm running for the presidency."

"I tell them," he said, "that I'm focusing on my job as a senator from Illinois."

Now, however, he has told Time that he will revisit the question in November.

"When the election is over and my book tour is done, I will think about how I can be most useful to the country and how I can reconcile that with being a good dad and a good husband," Obama said. "I haven't completely decided or unraveled that puzzle yet."

___

(Chicago Tribune staff reporter Mitch Dudek in Chicago contributed to this report.)

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