BEND, Ore. -- Sen. Barack Obama probably did not need to make a surprise appearance Friday at the Twilight Meet at the University of Oregon. The liberal college town of Eugene is already his territory, and the subset of fleece-clad runners' families that filled the grandstand is probably even more reliably his crowd.
But such is this moment for Obama that it seemed natural to indulge in a little affirmation. As his bus pulled up, he strode onto the handsome old track just as the women's 5K was ending. A murmur went through the crowd, the public-address announcer confirmed his arrival, and the action came to a halt as 5,000 track fans rose as one to cheer the senator from Illinois who appears suddenly on the verge of claiming his party's presidential nomination. The javelin hurlers dropped their equipment, and the 400-meter hurdlers paused in their warm-ups as a waving Obama made his way around one of the country's most famous tracks bathed in late-afternoon sunlight -- a victory lap.
"You guys are just so fast. I congratulate you," Obama said as he reached the finish line, where the 5K runners still waited -- as if the applause was for anyone but him.
For weeks, Obama campaigned in a nerve-racking limbo, maintaining a seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates, yet unable to shake the threat that sundry controversies or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's critiques would yet convince Democrats that he was not their best standard-bearer. But after his strong performance in Indiana and North Carolina produced a marked shift in the narrative -- he finally surpassed Clinton in endorsements from party superdelegates on Saturday -- Obama is allowing himself, at long last, to breathe easier and savor his achievement.
Flying across the country, he made a rare extended visit to the back of his campaign plane to play the word-association game Taboo, cackling in delight as he and his aides twice defeated their foes in the press corps and making a joking analogy to the campaign. "At what point is this game over?" he asked the reporters. "When we win," one said. "That sounds familiar," he said with a smile.
At a taqueria in Woodburn, Ore., he beamed for the cameras as he dug into a chicken taco, a far cry from his more finicky culinary ventures in previous states. At the Eugene track, he gamely climbed over a high hurdle, pitched free T-shirts into the crowd and smiled through the public-address announcer's ribbing about his poor bowling in Pennsylvania.
He is officially on guard against seeming overconfident, saying at every turn that he is still running hard against a tough primary opponent. His campaign is well aware that he faces the prospect of a thumping in the upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Yet here, in a state where he is strongly favored to win, his stump speeches seem less like bids for votes than a chance for fans to see their hero and hear his pitch one last time before he moves on to the next stage. At an outdoor rally on the university campus after his visit to the track, Obama declared that the state's May 20 vote could be the one that gives him a clear majority of pledged delegates.
And he adopted a retrospective tone, taking stock of the 15-month campaign that has brought him close to defeating a heavily favored former first lady backed by a powerful political machine. He expressed regret for having allowed his campaign to indulge in some of the tit-for-tats that he decries.
"There've been times where you get whacked so many times that after a time, you feel you have to whack back. You've got to go negative. You don't want to look like a wimp," he said. "The times . . . I'm most proud of is when we resisted the impulse, and the times that I'm least proud of is when we succumbed to that impulse."
This transitional moment is not without challenges. Much of Obama's appeal lies in his critique of politics as a whole, as he argues that the country's problems go beyond "just one man and one party," and he is still learning how to combine that message with the more partisan case expected of him if he is his party's nominee. His hard-edged new lines attacking Sen. John McCain's platform can come across as jarring after months in which he has resisted overly harsh assaults on Clinton.
While Obama is dropping his criticism of Clinton so he can ease a conciliation with her, his basic message -- his call for unifying the country, for truth-telling leadership, and for reducing the influence of special interests -- still comes across as an implicit criticism of what he sees as her form of politics. And this message may not work as well against McCain, with his reputation for breaking with party orthodoxy and working to stop campaign finance excesses. On Saturday, Obama dismissed this challenge, saying McCain's reputation for straight talk is at odds with reality. "We're going to have to have a debate not based on John McCain's image or on my image, but on facts," he said.
But such challenges seem distant for Obama and the crowds turning out to see him. In Eugene, Dennis and Anastasia Sandow, Democrats in their 50s, lined up three hours early for a spot squeezed against a police barrier, with poor sightlines. But they had to be there, they said -- not to decide whom to vote for next week, but to witness history.
"This is where the [primary] is going to end," Dennis Sandow said. "This is a victory celebration."