On Oct. 2, 2002, a modest crowd gathered at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago for what would be the city's first organized rally to protest the coming war.
The roster of speakers included a future presidential front-runner. But back then, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator with an eye on a U.S. Senate seat.
Now, at nearly every campaign rally in his run for the presidency, Obama cites the speech he delivered on that day, in which he came out strongly against the Bush administration on Iraq.
Obama told the anti-war rally that day, "I don't oppose all wars. I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war."
The speech, delivered five-and-a-half years ago, allows Obama, now the junior senator from Illinois, to say something that his rival for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), cannot: that he never supported the war. At the time of the speech, the U.S. Senate had not yet given President Bush authorization to use military force to topple Saddam Hussein.
A Centerpiece of Obama's 'Judgment' Argument
On the campaign trail, Obama promotes his 2002 speech in steady and relentless fashion.
"On the most important national security question since the Cold War, I am the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning," he said.
Clinton dismisses Obama's early opposition to the war, saying, "I have the experience. John McCain has the experience. All Barack Obama has is just a speech."
Obama counters that the speech demonstrated his sound judgment, and that it showed the kind of political courage a president needs. He says it was risky to deliver such a speech barely a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a time when the president was riding high in the polls.
"My objections to the war in Iraq were not simply a speech," Obama said. "I was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a high-stakes campaign. I was one of the most vocal opponents of the war." (Obama delivered the speech in October 2002; he did not officially declare his candidacy for the U.S. Senate until January).
Rally Attendees Remember Obama's Speech
Even in this era of YouTube and camera phones, a recording of Obama's speech is all but impossible to find. The Obama campaign has gone so far as to re-create portions of the speech for a television ad, with the candidate re-reading the text, with audience sound effects.
In the actual speech, Obama said the U.S. should focus on Afghanistan and on capturing Osama bin Laden. He spoke of "weekend warriors in the Bush administration with an ideological agenda." He called Saddam Hussein a butcher, but also stressed that the Iraqi dictator posed no imminent or direct threat to the United States. On that day, Obama also predicted a United States' occupation of Iraq of undetermined cost, length and consequences.
Marilyn Katz, one of the event's organizers, recalls the audience's reaction. "The crowd was pretty much transfixed," she said.
But Juan Andrade Jr., president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, was less impressed. Andrade says he has seen Obama give great speeches, most notably at the 2004 Democratic Convention, but the 2002 anti-war speech was not one of them.
"There was nothing magic about it," Andrade said, adding, "There was nothing about that speech that would have given anybody any sense that he was going places. We were just glad that he was one of those who was willing to step up at a time when very few people seemed to be willing to do that."
So, just how much attention did the speech attract?
Bill Glauber, who covered the rally for the Chicago Tribune, says he didn't even quote Obama.
"I guess other media was there," Glauber says, "but we didn't quote Barack Obama at his famous anti-war speech. He was not the main guy."
Glauber says that he did not even mention Obama in his newspaper article on the rally and instead focused on the rally's other speaker, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Was the Speech Risky?
Obama cites the speech as an example of his political courage, but David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, says the address was not necessarily a risky move.
"I still don't think it was an inordinate risk here in Illinois, where you have a very blue-state crowd," Mendell said, adding, "I might take issue with just how risky it was."
In Obama's subsequent successful run for the Senate, he benefited from word-of-mouth about the speech — spread by the educated, liberal, mostly white crowd that attended the rally. The same word-of-mouth about the speech could also help him in his run for the White House.