CHICAGO -- Barack Obama is just the sort of unvarnished liberal Republicans thought they could take apart in Illinois's US Senate race.
But Obama, a staunch proponent of abortion rights and gun control, and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, has emerged as his party's best hope for picking up a Senate seat this fall, delivering a traditional liberal message while representing what supporters say is literally the new face of the Democratic Party.
His keynote address to the Democratic National Convention this evening, he said, will draw heavily on the personal stories of people he has met while campaigning throughout Illinois. "Wherever I go, people are struggling. They're having a tough time," he said. "The Democratic Party candidates shouldn't be ashamed of their core values."
The 42-year-old state senator is currently unopposed in his bid to become the third African-American member of the Senate since Reconstruction. His father was born in Kenya; his mother, who is from Kansas, is white.
While others in the Democratic Party have rejected the "liberal" moniker, Obama embraces it as he campaigns against "the radical conservatism that has hijacked the Republican Party." Instead of fretting about moving the party towards the center to attract what is left of the undecided vote, Obama offers an agenda that recalls the New Deal -- but he does so in a distinctly modern manner that his fans say help him appeal to colleagues and constituents beyond fellow progressives and African-Americans.
"He has restored 'liberal' to the vocabulary," said Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and congressman who now teaches law at the University of Chicago. "He knows how to build bridges with people who don't necessarily agree with him on everything."
Within just a few months, Obama has risen to national prominence within the party. He began the year as an underdog candidate with a surname unhelpfully one consonant away from the name of a terrorist mastermind, but Obama scored an upset victory in the March primary, winning 53 percent of the vote in a seven-person field that included better financed and more established Democrats.
Veteran lawmakers gush about his charm and eloquence; some already are speculating privately that Obama could himself run for president someday. Instead of begging the national party for funding, this first-time candidate for federal office has been working the phones for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising cash for the party.
"Barack is everything he is accused of being, which is a rising star," said New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, the campaign committee's chairman, who now counts the open Illinois US Senate seat as a virtual lock for the Democrats in the fall and a key component of the party's strategy to take back control of the Senate. "He's an exceptional human being. It's terrific that a role model for diversity is such an extraordinary talent."
Republicans call Obama an out-of-the-mainstream candidate too liberal for even leftward-moving Illinois. But embarrassing allegations in divorce papers forced the GOP's nominee, Jack Ryan, to withdraw from the race to succeed retiring Senator Peter Fitzgerald, also a Republican. GOP officials now say that the lack of competition means Obama's record has not been tested.
"Once you look at his record, you see that if Obama were ever to be elected to the US Senate, he would make Ted Kennedy look like Ronald Reagan. He's clearly the most liberal nominee for the US Senate ever to come out of Illinois," said Bill Pascoe, who was Ryan's communications director. "This is a man who's to the left of Hillary Clinton on abortion, to the left of Hillary Clinton on health care, to the left of John Kerry on the war, to the left of Howard Dean on taxes."
Obama's story has a touch of the exotic. His father, also named Barack Obama, was born a member of Kenya's Luo tribe; he met and married Obama's mother in Hawaii. As an "exceptional" basketball player at the Punahou School in Hawaii, Obama was sometimes overshadowed by unusually strong teammates -- some of whom went on to play college or professional sports, said John Kamana, a teammate of Obama's who played for the Los Angeles Rams. "On another team Barack probably would've been a star," Kamana said. "But you know what? He accepted his role and waited for his turn to shine."
After a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama attended college at Columbia University, became a community organizer in Chicago, then went to Harvard Law School, where in 1990 he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Obama freely admits in his autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," that he used cocaine and marijuana as a teenager; now, he presents an image of a strong family man, married to another lawyer, Michelle, with whom he has two young daughters.
After law school, Obama returned to Chicago and practiced civil rights law before running for the state Senate seat representing Chicago's South Side. He is serving his seventh year in the state Senate.
In the legislature, Obama helped lead the fight on death penalty reform. He is clear in his opposition to the war in Iraq -- at one point calling it "a rash war" based "not on principle, but on politics" -- and support for abortion rights. Obama also says he is dedicated to fulfilling what he calls government's "obligation" to its citizens in health care and education.
"Where some . . . Democrats get into trouble is when they're willing to abandon the goals because they think it won't sell politically," Obama said in an interview. But "there are times when the Democrats will speak as if someone who owns a shotgun and likes to hunt is automatically a nut, or someone who believes Jesus Christ is their savior is unenlightened. We have to be careful about that."
On gay marriage, Obama also warns against offending middle America.
"I don't think that voters support gay-bashing," he said. But "people want to know that Democrats respect traditional virtues even if the Democratic party's policies promote tolerance."
Globe correspondent Pat Bigold contributed to this report from Hawaii.