Durbin once questioned if Obama could win
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin was one of the first to encourage Barack Obama to run for the presidency, but the grueling two-year campaign had him at times thinking the first serious black contender for the office might not win.
In an interview with the Daily Herald about Obama's rise to the White House and race in Illinois, Durbin conceded he wasn't sure Obama could win after losing to Hillary Clinton in the early New Hampshire primary.
Obama soon came back with a strong showing in South Carolina that helped him regain momentum in an unprecedented primary battle.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview with Durbin, a Springfield Democrat who is now entering his third six-year term representing Illinois in the Senate.
Q: You where the first U.S. Senator to endorse Obama and the only one to do so for the first year of his campaign. Was there a point when you thought he might not win?
A: Yes. Three months before Iowa we were in the tank. We were 30 points down. It didn't look good. Then we won Iowa. But then came New Hampshire, which was a wake-up call for all of us. It was like, 'All right role up your sleeves and let's do this.'
Q: What about later in the campaign when the statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright came out on the TV news programs?
A: I didn't know what impact that would have, because of some of the terrible statements that Rev. Wright had made. But I tell you, the speech Barack gave in Philadelphia on race, I think, is going to go down in history as the most important of any presidential candidate. He really, I think, spoke to people in America about an issue which we still struggle with.
Q: What does it say about Illinois, that it was this state that produced America's first black president?
A: Before we become too full of ourselves on race ... it has only been 30 years since we first elected an African American statewide in the land of Lincoln. But we have come a long way. The two top vote getters in Illinois have been African Americans, (Secretary of State) Jesse White and Barack Obama. I really do think our state is becoming virtually color blind when it comes to politics, and I think that is a good thing."
Q: Will Obama's rise to the presidency significantly lessen the role of racism in America?
A: Luckily, that group is getting smaller. What we found in this campaign was that the younger voters ... really didn't understand all the problems older generations had with race. That tells me future generations will be a lot better on this than my own.
Q: Obama made a lot of promises on the campaign trail about bridging the partisan divide in Washington, D.C. As one of the most liberal former senators, can Obama really make good on his pledge?
A: Regardless of his voting record, he has a very strong history of working with Republicans in the Senate. I was in the leadership meeting last week when Republicans said, 'We have some of our own ideas.' And he said, 'I want to hear them. Maybe they are better than ours.' He is genuine. He really does want to hear their proposals and I think he has really started with the right approach.
Q: Does the scandal surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich at all distract or detract from Obama's inauguration?
A: I don't think it will have any impact at all. As far as I'm concerned, Rod Blagojevich represents a chapter in Illinois political history that will soon be closed. I'm looking forward to new leadership in the state Capitol and a brand new president.