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"Hi, Jeff. Thank you for coming." There, vigorously shaking my hand, is the next leader of the free world. Or the next guy we'll get all excited about, and then be let down.

"You're welcome, Senator."

Maybe if Barack Hussein Obama knew I was the only person here who didn't pay $1,000 (or more) for this company, he would have skipped me altogether. But as far as he knows, I'm just like the rest of the 100 or so people gathered in the Maitland living room of supporter Bob Mandell for this June 30 fundraiser. I'm here as the guest of lawyer/nightclub owner/ Obamaniac Mark NeJame, who collected a bunch of big checks in a manila envelope and thus is allowed a nonpaying companion.

I can't bring a notebook or ask Obama questions. NeJame introduced me around to his monied friends as "a journalist, but he's here as a supporter."

Which is true. I've been a fan since the famed 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Obama speaks to an idealism and intellectualism we've not seen in our recent leaders. That's partly why I'm here: to see if, in person, he lives up to the hype.

But I also want to see what goes on at these exclusive fundraisers. For tonight's event, $1,000 is the minimum contribution; if you can afford the $2,300 federal maximum, so much the better.

This is a big night for Obama for America. It's the last night of the second quarter on the campaign finance calendar. He needs every last dollar to bump up his quarterly campaign finance reports. A good report will generate favorable media, and maybe close the gap between him and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

What do these contributions buy? Not a lot of face time. NeJame gets a few-minutes-long semi-private audience in which the senator signs his book and a copy of Vanity Fair. As for the rest of us, it's grip-and-grins, 25 minutes of speaking, another round of handshakes and pictures, and then Obama is out the door.

He arrives a little after 7 p.m., and he's mobbed from the get-go. Everyone lines up to shake his hand, to ask him if he could focus on a pet issue or to pose for pictures with him like they're old college buddies. He is obviously tired from the whirlwind schedule, and makes no secret of the fact that he wants to get back to Illinois and his family as soon as possible.

Obama makes it to a microphone set up on the other side of the room, thanks us for coming and launches into a version of what by now has to be a familiar speech for him. Four years ago, everyone was ga-ga over Howard Dean's 70,000 donors at this stage in the game; Obama's nearly quadrupled that number. People want a new form of politics, he says, a signature line in his campaign. He reminds us that he was against the Iraq war before such a position was popular. He promises to fix Darfur. He tells us that he wants to set up a universal health-care system, and after praising Sen. Clinton, notes that she couldn't get it done in 1993 because she was too divisive.

Then he takes questions. Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal is first out of the gate with one about Iran. To his credit, Obama doesn't trot out a nifty one-liner. Instead he ponders, weaving in and out of various ideas and ramifications like a college professor giving a lecture. We need to use economic sanctions as threats, he says, but there also has to be a reward for good behavior. We can't take a military option off the table, but neither is an invasion a good idea.

It is all very cerebral. "He's good," Segal tells me after. The answer cemented his support.

Obama says he'd be a good president on foreign affairs because he's lived outside of the country and doesn't have an insulated perspective on America's relationships around the globe. He tells us he'd be a good candidate for women because he's surrounded by strong women every day.

His stump speeches are inspiring and have an almost literary flair. In person, he's a little less supernatural and a lot more wonky. His answers can be rambling, but not in a way that suggests he's trying to talk his way out of a question. Rather just the opposite, like he's trying to answer not only what he was asked, but every peripheral question that goes along with whatever topic is at hand.

By 7:45 p.m., Obama says he's going home, but not before another round of picture-taking — including, this time, one with me — and handshaking. It occurs to me how difficult it must be to keep your ego in check during this sort of process, wherein people give you hundreds of thousands of dollars in one night for the privilege of a few seconds of your time and the hope that you will change the country for the better.

This world of big checks and political messiahs is a strange one indeed.

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