Having used up most of the appropriate superlatives in my vocabulary, I am left with a question: Can Obama leverage this impressive performance into winning the Democratic nomination? The veterans of President John Connally's 1980 (actually, just 1979) campaign know why I have doubts. It's very hard for a campaign with no money to win, but a campaign with plenty of money can -- and frequently does -- lose. Republican Steve Forbes's 2000 campaign had it all, except the votes to win his party's nomination.
If Obama were not in this race, the story line would read like this: Although Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has an enormous fundraising advantage and leads former Sen. John Edwards by double digits in both national and New Hampshire polling, Edwards remains ahead in most Iowa polls.
The pressing question would be: Can the North Carolinian upset the Clinton juggernaut? A second question: What should we make of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's recent gains in Iowa and New Hampshire polling? Do we need to take him seriously as well? Even with Obama in the race, that's the non-Obama story line.
For a time earlier this year, Obama matched the surge in check-writing passion with very impressive gains in the national polls. In early March, his run-up in the polls seemed to flatten out, then he dropped a bit. Clinton seemed to have topped out a few weeks earlier, and her numbers declined as well. The only Democrat moving up on Pollster.com's national charts in the spring was former Vice President Gore, boosted by the popularity of "An Inconvenient Truth," his global-warming documentary. But few serious observers ever expected Gore to enter the race; Obama and Clinton were losing ground to a phantom candidate.
Obama's candidacy is fascinating. Although he is undeniably a very bright and impressive guy with an unusual life story, he can hardly point to experience and expertise as qualifying him for the presidency. A few months ago, an adviser to Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., complained to me that each of the active candidates who rank No. 4, 5, and 6 in the national polls (Joseph Biden, Dodd, and Richardson) has more electoral experience than Nos. 1, 2, and 3 (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards) have combined. No, Obama's popularity isn't about experience.
And while Obama has certainly delivered some stirring speeches, starting with his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he is not a consistent barn burner. Many a Democrat has attended an Obama function expecting to have a nearly religious experience, only to find the candidate fairly impressive but not quite a match for all the hoopla.
Obama's candidacy is sometimes called "aspirational" -- because his campaign taps into the hopes and ambitions of a substantial segment of Democrats who love what nominating and electing him would say about the party and the country. I had been saying that Obama was the political equivalent of a "concept car" in the automobile world until someone in Detroit informed me that concept cars usually don't have engines. Obama certainly has great engines, both between his ears and in his chest.
He is running neck and neck with Clinton among African-Americans. Otherwise, Obama's support is heavily concentrated among Democrats age 35 and younger, and among those with college degrees. The young and the highly educated seem to be approaching this election with a more idealistic mind-set than other Democrats.
Older Democrats and those with less than a college education are operating along more-traditional lines, holding back on Obama while acknowledging his interesting background and general impressiveness.
Now Obama has the money. Let's see whether he can convert it into votes.