Barack Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic convention was masterful. But the qualities that really make the U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois so unique were on display later in the evening, during an exchange with a CNN reporter. She asked the 42-year-old state senator from Chicago why he was invited to deliver the prime-time address. Obama, who went to Harvard Law School, instantly grasped the racial subtext of the question. A more conventional politician would have identified this potential minefield and stepped around it. Not Obama, though. He calmly explained that he's potentially the third African American in history headed to the Senate, which speaks to a diversity that the Democratic party values. He said he was sure that had something to do with his role. (If anyone has a transcript of this conversation, please let me know, and I will link to it. I have yet to find it.) That brief interview revealed a candidate who is willing, if not eager, to address sensitive, politically risky issues, in a manner that's calm, honest and direct. It was surprising, and refreshing, to see a politician be so forthright. No wonder he's on the rise. BusinessWeek's alexandra_starr examines his prospects.

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