Second City? Maybe Not.

By Karin Caifa in Chicago, IL

Late last night when my colleagues sat down for some deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s here in Chicago, our bartender Kirby, sensing we were out-of-towners, made certain he offered the following caveat about our impending meal: “You’re gonna have to eat it with a knife and fork. You can’t pick it up and fold it over. It’s not New York pizza.”

No, Chicago is definitely not New York – the differences between the Midwest metropolis and the east coast city go well beyond pizza. For that matter, it’s also not buttoned-down and stately like Washington. Chicago has a long and storied political history, but one that’s more rough and tumble, a reputation that it doesn’t hide. Now, Barack Obama’s campaign and upcoming presidency has carved a new role for the Second City.

There was a time when many believed that the 2008 presidential race would turn into a Big Apple slugfest between New Yorkers Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. But last fall’s frontrunners soon faded away – Giuliani sooner than Clinton – and that political Subway Series was not meant to be. Barack Obama’s campaign turned the spotlight on the city that’s never quite paralleled the glitz of New York or the power of Washington: Chicago.

Despite his day job on Capitol Hill, Obama kept his headquarters close to home in Chicago. Did having a war room outside of the Beltway give Obama’s camp a better sense of middle America, and an advantage over McCain’s and Clinton’s offices in suburban Washington? It may have given the campaign a more Midwestern sensibility that would ultimately serve them well The Midwest was kind to Obama, during his Democratic primary bid and during the general election. His January win in the Iowa caucuses propelled him to the national stage. He pulled within a razor-thin margin of Hillary Clinton in the Indiana primary in May, delivering a late-stage blow to a rival who needed a double-digit win to keep her momentum. On Tuesday, he scored the first general election win by a Democrat in Indiana since 1964.

It made sense for Obama to base his most ambitious political campaign ever in Chicago. Not only did he begin his rapid political ascent here, it’s also the place the president-elect has spent most of his adult life, after a childhood that took him to exotic places like Indonesia and Hawaii. Obama incorporated elements of that multicultural experience into a campaign that encouraged inclusion and at times transcended race. Now the focus is on whether Obama will incorporate elements of Chicago in his White House.

Rahm Emanuel is being discussed as Obama’s chief of staff. The former aide to Bill Clinton would mark a second tour of duty at the White House, one that he’s followed by representing the northside of Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, in the House of Representatives. He’s known for a scrappy, hardball style of politics that he honed here in Chicago, winning his first major notoriety as a fundraiser for Mayor Richard Daley’s campaign in 1989.

So when Obama scored a win, it looks like he made Chicago a winner too.  And right off the bat. When Obama revelers packed the streets in New York and Washington to commemorate the Democrat’s victory Tuesday night, only one city got the hometown hero live and in person: Chicago.

Karin Caifa is a political producer with CNN who contributes to this blog via CNN’s Running Mates.

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