ROCKFORD, Ill. – In the days since he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama (search) has chatted by phone with President Bush, had his picture in People magazine and appeared several times on national television.
He's also been quizzed by the likes of 17-year-old Abby Longbottom, who joined her senator-elect in the stuffy basement of the Rockford Public Library to hear him talk about after-school programs.
Such is the life of the nation's only black senator, who comes to Washington wearing the label of the Democratic Party's great hope but promising only to work for the folks back home.
"I have not taken the hype too seriously," Obama said after bidding farewell to his colleagues in the Illinois Legislature last week. "When you've worked in relative obscurity for a long period of time, I think you make a decision that you're in this to actually get something accomplished, as opposed to seeking out the limelight."
The limelight, though, continues to seek out Obama, who became a political star after a rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention (search).
Before that speech, he was a relative unknown, a state senator from Chicago who had come out on top of a primary field of seven Democrats competing for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
Obama skated through what could have been a tough race when the millionaire Republican primary winner dropped out amid a sex scandal. Then John Kerry's campaign picked him for the convention keynote, and the rest was history for the 43-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and self-proclaimed "skinny kid with a funny name."
Obama's autographs now fetch bids on eBay and Internet sites offer "Obama '08 President" bumper stickers.
Although he appeared on "Meet the Press" and sifted through 100 interview requests, most of Obama's post-election time has been spent outside the national spotlight. He traveled across Illinois and packed in crowds at library conference rooms and city hall chambers, where people wanted to know what he would do for their schools or businesses or local bus service.
In Rockford, a manufacturing town about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, Obama promised to work to close tax loopholes for businesses that move overseas and encourage passenger service to return to the local airport. And he admitted how hard it would be to pass many of his broader initiatives — such as health insurance for all children — as a freshman senator in the minority party.
Still, his broad appeal was evident even at those local meetings. Deki Fox traveled 1 1/2 hours from Milwaukee to Rockford just to tell Obama how much she liked him, even if he wasn't her senator.
"With all this talk of mandates, you have my mandate and the mandate of people way beyond Rockford or even the state of Illinois," Fox said. "We are people who are divided as a country, and we need your presence ... to bring our states back together and to bring us back together as an American people."
"That's a pretty big job you just gave me," Obama said, prompting laughter from the library crowd. Someone shouted back, "You can do it!"
When pressed, Obama acknowledges that all the attention is likely to give him more influence than a typical rookie in Congress, but he seems well aware of the perils of his star status. He calls the presidential talk "silly" and says his first weeks in Washington will be spent finding the bathrooms and learning the ropes.
If he's going to meet the expectations many have for his political future, Obama is right to ignore the hubbub, said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University.
"Though others may be pushing him into celebrity status, he has to demonstrate to the voters of Illinois as well as to his colleagues in the Senate that he is not a prima donna," Ransom said. "He's the new kid on the block, and he could be eaten alive if he's not careful."