Barack Obama grabbed his first headlines 14 years ago, when he became the first African-American elected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
Few outside of law circles may have noted him then, but it's hard to ignore him now.
Even if Mr. Obama weren't giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, there would be little doubt about his future in the Democratic Party. Studious, charismatic, and articulate, the Illinois state senator is all but certain to win a seat in the US Senate this November, and in the process become the third African-American ever to serve in that house.
With a Kenyan father he barely knew, raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii, the self-described "skinny guy with a funny name" offers a compelling life story and the ability to connect across races and classes. He entered a crowded primary field as a long shot, without the backing of the state's Democratic machine, and won with 53 percent of the vote - double that of the second-place rival.
With Obama running unopposed (until state Republicans choose a successor to former candidate Jack Ryan), pundits have stopped writing about the Senate seat, and begun looking farther down the road, even speculating about his potential as a someday presidential candidate.
Premature? Definitely. But this is a party looking to its future. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the executive branch, Democrats are more than ever searching for a "next wave" to inspire voters and cut across partisan lines. It includes well-known figures like Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer as well as largely unknown mayors, congressmen, and candidates. People watching the convention may notice Mayor Mike Coleman of Columbus, Ohio., or Kendrick Meek, a US representative from Florida. Beyond the convention, party members are keeping a close eye on Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina and Ken Salazar in Colorado, both races with the potential to return a Senate seat.
Many of those in the spotlight are women, African-American, or Hispanic; most have shown an ability to win wide support in states that aren't overwhelmingly Democratic, or to appeal to moderates and Republicans.
The convention is "putting a high focus on getting the stars of tomorrow out and on the media," says Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist. "To start is Obama, but it translates throughout the party."
So who will you hear about? Governor Napolitano has garnered plenty of press, landing on many lists as a vice-presidential possibility. Energetic and smart, she won a tough 2002 race by less than 12,000 votes, and has helped increase the Democrats' profile in the state. "She's won a very tough state for Democrats, and she's turned that state around," says Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Napolitano is part of a small coterie of Democratic governors on the rise, including Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Another is Evan Bayh, the former governor of Indiana who's just finishing his first Senate term. First elected governor at 33, in a solidly Republican state, Mr. Bayh epitomizes New Democrat centrism and was on many short lists for the vice-presidential spot.
"He has that regular-guy quality," says Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia. "and his personal popularity overwhelms the party identity."
But if such people have, in some sense, already arrived, there's even more interest in Democrats who may break into the top ranks. Close Senate races in swing or Republican states are drawing interest; candidates include Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina, Brad Carson in Oklahoma, and Tony Knowles in Alaska. Even if they lose, a strong finish and appeal to moderates could mean a bright future.
Most of those Senate candidates will be absent from the convention. But Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who most expect to run for governor in 2006, will speak Wednesday, and Michael Coleman is a vice-chair of the convention. As Columbus's first African-American mayor, and the first Democrat to head the city in 32 years, many expect Coleman to move on soon to statewide office.
Some also see a crop of rising stars in Georgia, a state that witnessed a major defeat of Democrats in 2002. For this year, at least, it will stay a Republican stronghold, but Democrats are hopeful that people like Cathy Cox, the secretary of state, and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin can help swing things back. Other mayors attracting attention are Gavin Newsom in San Francisco, most known for briefly allowing same-sex marriages there earlier this year, and Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit.
All these rising stars, along with young activists and campaign workers that the party is training, mean "the Democrats are making a serious investment in building ... a farm team for future elections," says Ms. Backus. "Inside this group are the leaders of tomorrow."