DENVER — For months, the magic that once surrounded Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy was lost in a fog of petty politics: the negative ads, the Clinton dramas, the degrading of Obama to the status of a mere “celebrity,” the back-and-forth with John McCain over who is an elitist and who is a flip-flopper.

The recent direction of the campaign reflects a basic political fact: If this contest turns out to be a big election, Obama will almost certainly win. But if it is converted into a small election, Obama could well lose. And the McCain campaign has done all it could to bring Obama back to earth and to dissipate the sense of possibility he once inspired.

If it did nothing else, this week’s Democratic National Convention served as a reminder of the historical import of Obama’s nomination and the astonishing transformation of the country in just three generations.

This year, after all, is the 60th anniversary of one of the most significant convention speeches in our history. In 1948, a young Minneapolis mayor named Hubert Humphrey electrified Democratic delegates gathered in Philadelphia with a bold endorsement of President Harry Truman’s civil rights policies and the “promise of a land where all men are free and equal.”

“There are those who say to you: We are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are 172 years late,” Humphrey declared. “The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The Democrats narrowly adopted the strong civil rights plank that Humphrey called for — and a group of Southern delegates walked out and formed a breakaway segregationist party.

Now, the same Democratic Party has nominated an African-American for president, a man who is the product of an interracial marriage that was, in Humphrey’s day, illegal in many parts of the country.

This time, there was no walkout, no protest. On the contrary: To the extent that there has been discord here, it has arisen from a parallel equal rights movement led by women who had hoped to make Hillary Clinton the first female president.

And when Obama picked Sen. Joseph Biden as his running mate, little notice was paid to Biden’s Roman Catholicism, except to the extent that this might be a political asset. At the time of Humphrey’s speech, only one Catholic had ever been nominated for president, and Al Smith was trounced in 1928 in a campaign that dripped with bigotry.

But voters do not cast ballots just to break historical barriers, and some might be reluctant to do so. The genius of the early Obama campaign was its success in welding his standing as a breakthrough candidate with the idea that he was uniquely well placed to “turn the page” of history at a moment when so many voters are frustrated with the Bush administration’s record and alarmed at the prospect of American decline.

Last November, when his campaign was flagging, Obama set himself on the path to nomination with a speech at a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines that linked the courage called forth in the civil rights years — “standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world” — with the audacity required now. It was an approach that lifted Obama above the day-to-dayness of politics and turned his campaign into a movement.

Since then, the struggles with Clinton in the late primaries and McCain’s furious round of attacks have introduced an element of cynicism about Obama and the large offer he’s making voters. The hope that this election might produce a different kind of politics seems unrealistic when the airwaves are awash in tawdry negative ads. Obama’s opponents have tried to tarnish his claim of being a transformational politician by diminishing the importance of his stirring oratory and turning his ability to excite large crowds into a liability.

It was impossible to walk the floor of this convention without running into rank-and-file dispensers of advice to Obama. They focused relentlessly on the basics: He needed to reassure middle-class voters that he was like them and understood them; he needed to draw sharp distinctions between himself and the political axis of McCain and Bush.

It was all sensible counsel. But ultimately, Obama will stand or fall on his ability to rekindle the sense of possibility and aspiration that Hubert Humphrey spoke for 60 years ago and that has, all along, been Obama’s central promise.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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