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Is Obama set to transform American politics?

WASHINGTON -- If Illinois Sen. Barack Obama can replicate what he did in South Carolina, he could be on the verge of seizing control of the Democratic nomination and perhaps changing American politics.

In Iowa, he forged a new coalition of young voters, newcomers to politics and change-hungry Americans surging to the polls in record-shattering numbers. Adding a new element, he rolled up a huge majority among blacks.

This does not mean he seized the nomination, or even the title of front-runner.

The old politics dies hard. He lost close contests in New Hampshire and Nevada. And Hillary Clinton also has a formidable coalition, spearheaded by women, the elderly and those who value experience over a fresh approach.

Yet overall, the rush of new voters, particularly young people, to the Obama campaign renews the suggestion that the nation is on the cusp of an historic shift. He could be the first black ever to win a major party nomination -- or the presidency.

His success also would signal what John F. Kennedy in 1960 called the passing of the torch to a new generation. Obama, 46, aims to turn the page on the way the nation's done politics and government under the baby-boom presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and would-be president Hillary Clinton, 60.

No less a figure than Kennedy's daughter endorsed Obama on Sunday as the heir to her father's brand of inspirational politics.

"He has built a movement that is changing the face of politics in this country," Caroline Kennedy said of the Illinois senator, "and he has demonstrated a special gift for inspiring young people -- known for a willingness to volunteer, but an aversion to politics -- to become engaged in the political process.

"I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them," she added. "But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president, not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

That was certainly a factor in South Carolina, where a record 530,000 people turned out to vote in the Democratic Party, nearly doubling the 280,000 turnout four years earlier.

The surge of voters gave Obama a much bigger than expected victory, one where his great appeal to blacks was nearly matched by his connection to young voters. He took 67 percent of the vote of those ages 18-29, according to exit polls.

Some of that attraction stems from his age. But more, perhaps, comes from his approach and his promise of less partisan, less combative problem solving.

He's the fresher face in a party that historically embraces newcomers. In the last half-century, Democrats only twice nominated someone who'd run before -- Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Al Gore in 2000.

And while both Obama and Clinton personify historic change -- the first black or woman with a real chance of being nominated and elected -- their campaigns in South Carolina and elsewhere struck very different chords.

Clinton doesn't look as much like change as Obama. By stressing her experience in the White House, she looks familiar.

Potentially worse for young voters, her boast that she knows better how to fight Republicans conjures images of a return to the partisan fights that dominated the Clinton years in the 1990s.

Obama looks more like change. He's a new face, a new generation -- and a promise of a new, more civil approach to politics that resonates particularly with the post-baby boom generation that came of age after the combative 1960s.

That was most evident when the two clashed in a tense debate last week in Myrtle Beach. After several minutes of tense, personal attacks and counter attacks, she broke into a smile and said she was just getting warmed up. He looked angry and pained.

If anything, Obama also might have benefited from a backlash among young voters who saw attacks on him from former President Bill Clinton in South Carolina as politics as usual, further feeding a desire for a new approach.

"We showed we are the one candidate who can bring new people into the process and generate the kind of enthusiasm that's needed," Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "That's going to bring momentum into the Feb. 5 states."

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