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Obama formally launches White House bid

Senator challenges new generation to 'transform' nation

Senator Barack Obama, with wife, Michelle, waved after formally announcing his bid for president yesterday in Springfield, Ill. (FRANK POLICH/REUTERS)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Senator Barack Obama formally launched his candidacy for the White House yesterday, invoking memories of Abraham Lincoln and challenging a new generation of Americans to help bridge political divisions and transform the nation.

Standing on the grounds of the Old State Capitol, Obama, Democrat of Illinois, opened what he described as an audacious campaign for president, one that barely seemed likely only six months ago -- and one that could make him the first African-American ever to reach the White House.

"Let us transform this nation," Obama told the crowd of about 15,000 people who came out to hear him on a sunny but frigid morning.

He spoke in front of the building where Lincoln served in the Legislature and delivered his famous "house divided" speech, the address that launched his campaign for the US Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Obama, 45, frankly acknowledged his limited experience on the national stage. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change," he said to some of the loudest applause of his 20-minute speech.

He then issued a call to his enthusiasts to do what other generations have done in times of political or economic crisis. "Each and every time a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he said. "Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

People thronged the streets of Springfield hours before Obama spoke, excited by the prospect of witnessing what could be a history-making presidential campaign. In a matter of months, the senator has gone from political phenomenon to full-fledged challenger for the White House.

The days ahead will test whether he can withstand the rigors of the long battle for his party's nomination and whether he can translate the energy surrounding his prospective candidacy into the machinery necessary to win that contest.

Obama traveled to Iowa and Chicago after his speech yesterday and will visit New Hampshire tomorrow, following Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who made her debut campaign swing there yesterday.

About 60 supporters of Obama rallied in downtown Boston yesterday to celebrate his announcement. Many of those who came to the Copley Square rally were members of , a national grass-roots organization .

"Today, we accomplished our goal," said Ross Neisuler, head of the group's Massachusetts chapter. "This is the dawn of a new age of politics for this country."

"I really feel strongly about this guy," said supporter Jenny Nordan, 32, of Winchester as she helped her daughter, Abby, 4, hold her "Barack '08" sign. "He really has a strength of character that's unparalleled."

Obama is one of the principal challengers to Clinton, but there are other candidates with whom he must contend. Among them is former North Carolina senator John Edwards, whose progressive agenda and grass-roots campaign threatens to occupy some of the same space Obama hopes to seize.

Obama's sharpest difference with both rivals was his early opposition to the Iraq war and their votes for the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.

Edwards has since apologized for his vote, and Clinton has said she would not have voted that way had she known then what she knows now. But Obama can point to remarks he made in the fall of 2002 in which he not only called the war "dumb," but predicted the dangers of the long occupation that followed the invasion.

"It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war," he said. "That's why I have a plan that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008."

In issuing a call for a new generation to take its place at the center of public life, Obama summoned up memories of President Kennedy and his 1960 campaign.

He sketched out an ambitious agenda, one that includes universal healthcare, ending dependence on foreign oil, reshaping the economy to meet global competition and protect the security of American workers, and confronting the specter of global terrorism.

Obama, is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother. Born in Hawaii, he grew up there, in Indonesia, and in Kansas.

He graduated from Columbia University and moved to Chicago to begin work as a community organizer on the city's South Side. He later graduated from Harvard Law School, where he served as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. After law school, he returned to Chicago.

In 1996 he ran for the state Senate and served four terms. He worked to overhaul the death penalty system and helped adopt new ethics legislation. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Four years later, he launched what seemed like an improbable campaign for the Senate.

He became a national Democratic Party star four months before winning the Senate seat when he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and called for Americans to overcome the red-blue divisions of recent politics.

Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, has since emerged as a literary and pop culture figure as much as a political one. His two best-selling books and his television appearances have spread his appeal widely over the past few months.

In his speech, Obama decried the cynicism that he said pervades the political process and called on those disillusioned by a culture of special interests and grid-locked politics to join him in his campaign.

"The time for that politics is over," he said. "It's time to turn the page."

Globe correspondent Nathan Hurst contributed to this story. Material from the Associated Press also was included.

Barack Hussein Obama

Birth: Honolulu, Aug. 4, 1961 (age 45)

Education: Law degree, Harvard University; bachelor's degree in political science, Columbia University.

Early career: Community organizer in Illinois; constitutional law professor, University of Chicago.

Politics: Freshman US senator from Illinois, 2005-present; Illinois state senator, 1997-2004. Lost a bid for a US House seat before winning his Senate seat. Delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 while still only a candidate for Senate. He is among nearly a dozen candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Personal: Lives in Chicago with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters.

SOURCE: Associated Press