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Obama youth leader takes a detour — to the Democratic National Convention — before her first day at UC Berkeley

  Sen. Barack Obama and Molly Kawahata
Senator Barack Obama and Molly Kawahata, a leader of the high-school wing of Students for Obama.

– After setting up house on Saturday, Aug. 23 in Unit 1 student residence hall, Molly Kawahata promptly left town. Missing out on Welcome Week festivities and her first two days of college classes, the UC Berkeley freshman took a Sunday flight to Denver — where she's a delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

The Dems' big bash is a high point, not the beginning, of Kawahata's involvement with the 2008 presidential campaign. Inspired by the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama, the Palo Alto native plunged headlong into the fray in February 2007 — becoming the California director, then national co-director, of the high-school wing of Students for Obama. The Obama campaign describes the group as "one of the largest grassroots student organizations in history."

Politics "doesn't run in my family," Kawahata says of her foray into the presidential campaign. "This was pretty much out of the blue." Dad works in the Silicon Valley biotech industry, Mom at Sunset Magazine as a cook; her two older siblings are involved in finance and teaching.

What excites Kawahata about Obama, she says, is his stance toward the corrosive partisanship that, in her opinion, infects "all levels" of American politics. "It's something I can't relate to; I don't see how it's constructive." Obama, she says, "does a good job of playing in a  game that's very set, but rising above a lot of that."

As a teen strategist and foot soldier for the Illinois senator, Kawahata has volunteered untold hours, typically five to eight per day, over the past year and a half — planning strategy with fellow high school organizers, attending caucuses, hosting conference calls, and going to rallies. She's traveled to Iowa and Nevada as an organizer, and has met Obama twice in person — once in November 2007, when she introduced him at his San Francisco rally at Bill Graham Auditorium.

In Denver, the Berkeley freshman is looking forward to meeting other young delegates and attendees. (Among them will be Cal sophomore Paula Villescaz, a delegate from the Sacramento area who worked for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Texas, and four other UC Berkeley undergrads.) Kawahata is also excited about hearing Obama's speech. "His 2004 keynote was incredible. Believing we are Americans first, before Democrats or Republicans," was the emphasis of that address, she says. "It's been the emphasis of his campaign, and I think it will be the emphasis of his presidency."

At the caucus this spring to elect delegates for California's 14th Congressional District, Kawahata submitted her name. She was 17 at the time, and had 30 seconds to give her pitch. "There were 40 people running, so they cut our time in half," she recalls. Three delegates and an alternate were elected to represent the district, which encompasses Silicon Valley and other parts of the San Francisco peninsula.

Kawahata and fellow delegates from the 14th will be posting their impressions on a blog from the convention. Following the grand finale Thursday night at the Mile High City's INVESCO stadium, she'll fly to Oakland the following morning and head straight to campus — to make her classes and, of course, touch base with fellow members of Students for Barack Obama at Berkeley.

Additional election coverage:

The American Dream: What's at Stake in Election 2008?

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students explore, through a package of multimedia and interactive features, the tough choices facing Americans and the next president in battleground states across the country.

The American Dream website