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Durbin’s Long Shot Pays Off

More than a year and a half ago, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) gambled on a long shot, a really long shot: that his newly elected, junior home-state colleague, Sen. Barack Obama, had the makings of a president. He took the risk against what was then the party establishment’s view that another prominent Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), would easily secure the Democratic nod for the White House in 2008.

Durbin pressed ahead anyway, privately lending his encouragement to the 46-year-old Obama in November 2006, less than two years after Obama began his Senate career. The 63-year-old Durbin says the two sat down for a “heart-to-heart talk” in Chicago about “whether he could, when and what it would mean for him and his family to get involved in this.” Barely two months later, Obama’s wife, Michelle, called Durbin to deliver the news that Obama had decided to run for president.

“At that point I said, ‘I am with you, and I endorsed him,’” Durbin said in an interview Wednesday.

It was an easy sell for Durbin, the veteran Illinois Senator who also is the No. 2 Democratic leader. After having watched Obama run for the Senate in his home state in 2004 and deliver a ballyhooed speech at the party convention in Boston that same year, Durbin said he knew he was witnessing a different kind of leader.

“It was amazing the people who turned out, the size of the crowds,” Durbin said. “I knew this man had special qualities as a political figure. I felt America needed him, and I am convinced he is the right person to lead the nation.”

Durbin already had begun a grass-roots recruitment effort to launch an Obama candidacy for 2008 — using his campaign Web site to solicit petitions for him to run. Durbin then spent months talking up Obama’s appeal, barnstorming the country on his behalf, leading a group of surrogates advocating his positions and lobbying nearly every one of his Senate Democratic colleagues — multiple times — to join him in endorsing Obama for president.

It was a long slog. Durbin spent the better part of a year as the sole Democratic Senator supporting the rookie’s presidential bid. Most of his colleagues were inclined to stay neutral, while a few others sided with the more seasoned and experienced Clinton.

It wasn’t until December that Durbin broke through when he helped persuade Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to get on board — a move that later led to Obama endorsements by some of the most senior Democratic Senators, including Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.), and even by a 2008 presidential aspirant himself, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.).

“I was the only Senator for 11 months,” Durbin said. “I kept waiting, and eventually Kent Conrad came along.”

Durbin said the turning point for Obama came in January after his surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Up until that point, Obama lacked the legitimacy of Clinton, and few believed he could topple what seemed like her inevitable march to the nomination. But Durbin said that contest showed that Obama could draw in an electorate whose demographics expanded beyond minorities.

“When he won Iowa, that’s when people said they need to take another look at his candidacy, and that launched him,” Durbin said.

Fast-forward to today, and Durbin is seeing the long odds pay off. Obama laid claim to the Democratic nomination for president Tuesday night and now is poised for a general election matchup against Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). But before delivering his speech in Minneapolis, Obama made certain to call Durbin to thank him for his work, saying, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversation: “You know Dick, I say it a lot, but with you I really mean it, I could not have done it without you.”

It’s not a surprise that Durbin has been Obama’s No. 1 advocate, whip and surrogate in Congress. Members of home-state delegations almost always stick together and serve as natural campaign arms for presidential hopefuls. Clinton’s New York colleagues, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D), similarly worked to advance her candidacy from the halls of Congress.

But few go to the lengths that Durbin has with Obama.

At the same time, Durbin dismisses any suggestion that he is a kingmaker. He quickly brushes it aside and turns the conversation back to what he views as Obama’s unique political magnetism, rather than his role in helping persuade Obama to run, or in helping Obama secure the party’s nomination.

“I don’t feel that way,” Durbin said of being an anointer. “I feel fortunate to have worked so closely with Barack for so many years. I know him so well, and I know what he can bring to the future.”

And if Obama was to win the presidency this fall, Durbin — who talks to Obama almost every day at least once a day — likely would enjoy unfettered access to and influence with the White House. That line of communication would serve Durbin well, especially since he’s often mentioned as a possible future Democratic Senate leader. But it also could be beneficial for Obama, who would need all the help he can get to push through an agenda against a robust GOP minority.

“If he’s fortunate enough to be president, he’s going to need Congress to work with him. He’s going to have more challenges than any recent president,” Durbin said. “He’s facing two wars, an economy that’s flat on its back, and energy policy is desperately needed. We need to deal with global warming and Social Security. The list is so long.”

So, with that, would Durbin want a place in the executive branch? It’s a question that Durbin, who is up for a third term this year, is quick to dismiss: “I have a great job as a Senator from Illinois. I want to continue that great job.”

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