Oddsmakers didn't give the black candidate much of a chance.
Yet in a three-way race, the black Chicago lawmaker scored a historic victory. With eloquent oratory, charm and determination, he grabbed the spotlight and the Democratic nomination from the female front-runner in a three-way race.
No, I'm not talking about Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses last week.
I'm referring to Harold S. Washington's 1983 primary victory on his way to becoming Chicago's first black mayor.
History seemed to repeat itself in a similar way on the Republican side of the Iowa caucuses too, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat his own party's earlier front-runners.
Back in 1976, another inspirational Southern governor with little money or name recognition used the Iowa caucuses to vault himself into national prominence and to the White House. He was a Georgia Democrat named Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Huckabee, like their predecessors, offer important lessons in a couple of basic rules of politics:
One, remember your base.
Two, inspiration is no less important than perspiration.
As a young community organizer, Mr. Obama says, he was inspired by Mr. Washington, who died 20 years ago this past November. So was Mr. Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, who worked on Mr. Washington's 1987 re-election campaign.
Echoes of Mr. Washington are easy to hear when Mr. Obama delivers his robust oratory about how we're not "blue states" or "red states" but "the United States of America." Mr. Washington similarly rallied Chicago to make the city more comfortable with its diversity. First, he had to accomplish what Mr. Obama accomplished in Iowa: Mr. Washington proved to his own supporters that he was electable.
Before Mr. Washington could pursue anyone else's support, he had to inspire his mostly black and liberal-progressive base. Ordinary politics would not be enough. Mr. Washington knowledgeably and eloquently employed the visionary, earth-moving imagery of the civil rights movement. With that, he inspired voters by offering a rare gift, the opportunity to help make major history.
Mr. Obama issued that same invitation to make history, and it paid off on caucus night. Entrance polls showed he received more votes among men, women, younger voters and first-time caucus-goers than front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards. Mrs. Clinton outpolled Mr. Obama only among senior voters.
If anything, Mrs. Clinton misjudged her base and its need to be inspired. Instead of reassuring her party's liberal-progressive base, she rushed to reach out to moderates as if she already had the nomination sewed up.
As a result, while Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards promised hope and change, Mrs. Clinton projected a sense of entitlement that proved disastrous.
Mr. Huckabee avoided any sense of entitlement as he leaped from the back row of his party's hopefuls. He sounded as though he felt blessed simply to be campaigning in Iowa.
Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Huckabee promised a new politics. He was the happy culture warrior. "I'm conservative but not mad at anybody," he said. Still, he was ready to fight the insiders on Wall Street or Washington's K Street on behalf of people who are having trouble making ends meet.
The former Baptist minister gathered together a base that included evangelicals, low-tax warriors and others who felt their party had left them adrift.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Huckabee showed that people don't turn out in big numbers for conventional politics. They have to believe their vote has meaning.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.