In South Africa, in Kenya, in Chad, when Sen. Barack Obama took questions from audiences or local reporters during his just completed African swing, it always came up one way or another -- is there a White House run in his future?
The interest of African audiences in Obama's political life is eclipsed only by fawning pundits in the United States who keep promoting the Illinois Democrat for 2008.
At the African venues, Obama shrugged off suggestions of a presidential run. But the freshman senator in some interviews of late has been giving answers that suggest the thought of running for president has crossed his mind.
For those Obama boosters, however, there are some very practical items to consider:
•Obama does not have a political organization to take him to the next level, if that's where he wants to go.
•For months now, Obama's main national political vehicle, the HOPEFUND, has been without a director. Obama has interim help from Democratic strategist Anita Dunn -- who is a consultant for a bona fide 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Obama is waiting until November to make a permanent hire, to see what talent is available after the midterm elections.
I've been gone for a few weeks in Africa with Obama, but when I left I gathered that Obama does not have the equipment, the staff, the systems of a big league political organization. In Washington, I've toured Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's expansive offices -- and I've been at Obama's storefront, a setup big enough to handle a Chicago aldermanic campaign.
•Obama's Senate office inner circle is small. It will make it harder for him to go to the next level operationally. The complex arrangements for the Africa trip, including getting information to a large traveling press corps, were largely handled by two staffers (military aides assisted with Obama's personal logistics) with most of the planning in the hands of foreign policy adviser Mark Lippert.
Lippert handled items ranging from Obama's meetings with presidents to negotiating the travel package for a side trip to a resort in the Masai Mara game reserve.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs, who is Obama's official Senate and political spokesman -- he gets a government salary and a stipend from the HOPEFUND -- kept a tight grip on logistical information mainly, I surmised, because he was overwhelmed.
The end result was chaotic, last-minute planning that would not go down well in a campaign.
So what that I ended up spending one night at a hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on a creepy street with no Internet access so I could not file anything -- I was glad two filmmakers shooting an Obama documentary went ahead and found a place for several of us to stay and it was safe enough inside. We lucked out. The writers from Rolling Stone and the AP got stuck in a hotel where some occupants were sporting AK-47 assault rifles.
•Obama is a great fund-raiser -- he's collected about $3.8 million for his HOPEFUND and millions more for others. But a real White House contender needs millions more.
•The charismatic Obama now is on a pedestal. If he is perceived as a real 2008 contender, things will change. I can't guess how; just that they will.
Obama travels to Iowa, the state with the first presidential test vote, Sept. 17.
CODEL Ray LaHood
Members of Congress travel internationally all the time on official congressional delegation business, called CODELs in Washington-speak. The difference in the Obama trip is that reporters went along, and most of the time, lawmakers travel with no press.
CODEL LAHOOD, led by Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) with two other House members, made a three-day visit to Lebanon and Israel starting on Sept. 2. LaHood was authorized to travel through the House Intelligence Committee, of which he is a member. He arrived at the embassy in Beirut on Saturday and met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other officials.
LaHood flew to Israel on Sunday and met with an assortment of Israeli top brass. LaHood is familiar with Lebanese politics; he's been there 11 times in 12 years. His grandparents on his father's side are from Lebanon.
His assessment: Lebanese military cannot protect the southern border with Israel and UNIFIL soldiers -- United Nations troops -- are vital. And a $230 million U.S. assistance package for Lebanon, to recover from Israeli bombing against Hezbollah targets, is crucial.
"The people in that area right now are very mad at Hezbollah, because all the good things they have done are destroyed,'' LaHood said.