SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Eager to showcase new faces at the party's national convention, Democrats have picked just about the newest face around to deliver the keynote address: Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama (search).
Obama could become only the fifth black senator in U.S. history. Tapping him to deliver the keynote address suggests the party sees a bright future for the 42-year-old law professor and state senator.
"It's a tribute to Senator Obama and his candidacy and what he represents, not only to the people here in Illinois but across our country," said Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search), a fellow Chicago Democrat. "He speaks to so much of what America in the 21st Century is and will be."
"What an extraordinary expression of confidence by the national party in his ability to command that stage," said David Wilhelm, the former head of the Democratic National Committee (search).
Past Democratic keynote speakers include New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. More recently, the speech has been delivered by promising younger officials, such as Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee in 2000 and Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh in 1996.
Obama has made a splash on the national scene since his March victory in the Illinois Senate primary, partly because he was able to win the support of many white voters as well as an overwhelming number of blacks.
"At a time when so much of our politics seems divided, the fact that, at least within the Democratic Party, we were able to pull together a broad-based coalition is encouraging to Democrats," he said Wednesday.
Obama often says he is part of the black community but not limited by it.
His father, a Kenyan, met Obama's mother, who was white, when both were students at the University of Hawaii. When Obama was 2, his father left the family and returned to Kenya, where he eventually became a senior economist in the Ministry of Finance.
Obama was raised, mostly in Kansas, by his late mother and grandparents. He graduated from Columbia University in New York and received his law degree from Harvard Law School. He became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review and later worked as a civil rights lawyer and as a community organizer in New York and Chicago.
Obama teaches law at the University of Chicago and has served in the state Senate since 1997.
Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager for presidential candidate John Kerry, said Obama represents "the next generation of Democratic leadership. He really leaped out as someone who people would really love to see."
Although his address is billed as the "keynote," other speeches, such as one delivered by former President Clinton, will be more high-profile. Obama speaks Tuesday, July 27, a night when the broadcast networks are not planning to air convention coverage.
The announcement came on the same day that Kerry launched $2 million worth of ads for television, radio and newspapers targeting black voters. Democrats handily won the black vote in 2000 by a 9-to-1 margin, and the party and Kerry campaign want to boost that turnout this November.
For the moment, Obama is running unopposed. Republican nominee Jack Ryan dropped out of the race over embarrassing sex club allegations in his divorce records. Nearly three weeks later, GOP leaders are still searching for a replacement.