CHICAGO, Feb. 11, 2007 -- In his first full day as an official candidate, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama got a taste of the rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics.
Obama, D-Ill., often criticized for his lack of foreign policy experience, had his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq by March 2008 attacked by an unlikely source -- the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, an ally of President Bush.
"If I were running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008," he said, "and uh pray as many times as possible that for a victory for Obama, but also for the Democrats."
Obama responded at a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa.
"I think it's flattering that … one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced," Obama said. "I take that as a compliment."
Obama's foreign policy proposals are just one target for his critics, who have many questions for the senator, including whether his church on the South Side of Chicago -- which preaches a message of black power -- is too militant to be accepted by mainstream America.
Conversely, there are some African-American critics who argue that Obama is not black enough. That was an issue in 2000, when Obama ran for Congress and lost to Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who now supports Obama's presidential bid.
"I think he has to do some intensive work in the black community," Rush said. "I think he's fully capable of that. But he can't take the black vote for granted."
In a 2003 interview with Jeff Berkowitz of "Public Affairs" on Chicago television, Obama said of his 2004 Senate race, "I'm rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not limited to it. And we are going to be competitive in every part of the state among every demographic."
Some observers say Obama -- born to a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas -- faces serious questions of whether America is ready to elect an African-American president. Today, Obama commented the role race may play.
"I think … if you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American," he told "60 Minutes," according to an article on the CBS News Web site. "It's interesting though, that now I feel very comfortable and confident in terms of who I am and where I stake my ground. But I notice that … I've become a focal point for a racial debate."
In another interview with the Associated Press, he said, "I think that early on it may spark some curiosity or a sense of novelty, but I think very quickly people will be judging me on the merits, [asking] do I have a message that resonates with people's concerns about health care and education, jobs and terrorism? … And if they do, then I think race won't be a major factor."
Obama today responded to one other criticism -- that his soaring rhetoric has yet to be backed up with significant substance. He said that was the fault of the press.
"The problem is not that the information is not out there," Obama said. "The problem is, is that's not what you guys have been reporting on. You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit."
Even Obama's cigarette habit is under media scrutiny; he told reporters today he'd been chewing Nicorette all weekend. But -- with a newly aggressive media, determined Democratic opponents, and a conservative media machinery willing to make the most outrageous and false claims -- kicking the habit is unlikely to be the toughest challenge Obama faces on the campaign trail.