By Christopher Wills
The Associated Press
BOSTON - A few months ago, Barack Obama was just an underdog candidate for a Senate seat, unknown even to many people in his home state of Illinois.
Now he's the newest star in his party, a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, a black candidate with a strong following among white voters.
But Obama grew up in Hawaii and knows something about waves - like the wave of attention he is enjoying now.
"I love to body surf. If you're on a wave, you ride it. You figure at some point you're going to get a mouthful of sand," he said. "It doesn't last forever."
If elected this fall, Obama, 42, would become the Senate's only black member and only the fifth in history. His chances are good, especially since Illinois Republicans have not yet come up with someone to run against him after their nominee dropped out amid a sex scandal.
Today's speech won't be shown by the broadcast networks, but it still has the potential to help Kerry and to make Obama a more important figure in the party. He admits to some nerves.
"If you're not a little nervous before the big game, you're not going to have a good game," he said.
Obama, a state senator from a Chicago district, lagged in early polls for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. But he won the primary election with huge support among black voters and a strong showing among whites, even in areas where he had done little campaigning.
That snapped people to attention. They learned his story - a community activist who became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and then returned to registering voters on Chicago's South Side.
Bruce Dixon worked with Obama on that voter-registration drive 12 years ago.
"You can't be an organizer without good people skills, without being smart enough to understand what people want," Dixon said. "Those are also political skills."
Obama later became a civil rights attorney and then began teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He was elected to the state Senate in 1996.
His father was a Kenyan who studied for several years in the United States. His mother was a white woman from Kansas who moved to Hawaii, where the couple met.
They divorced while Obama was an infant, and he met his father only once after that. The son wrote a book, Dreams From My Father, about their broken relationship and about growing up half-white and half-black in America.
The book describes a confused teenager who went through a period of rebellion and dabbled in drugs - including cocaine "when you could afford it."
Now married and the father of two girls, Obama has developed a reputation in the state as a legislator with liberal goals and a practical approach to achieving them.
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