Illustrations: Joshua Gorchov

The question was straightforward enough: Should Illinois senator Barack Obama run for president now, or wait until another election cycle? The answers were far from unanimous. Here's what our panel of pundits and faithful Democrats had to say:

Bob Kerrey

Former U.S. senator and governor of Nebraska; president of The New School, New York City
"It's a personal decision. He and his wife and family are the only ones who know if it's good for him. He should not do it because lots of people want him to. He should only do it if he wants to. But he's definitely ready. If he called me tonight and said, ‘My wife and I are going to do this,' and the only question was ‘Should I do it now?'-I would say, ‘Yes.' And if he said, ‘Do you think I'm ready?' I would say emphatically, ‘Yes.' He has the capacity to lead, and he also has the capacity to listen and he's not afraid to ask people to help him. You're never completely ready. The question is what is the nature of the man's character, and I think he's got all that.

"If he really wants to be president, I don't think he's going to have a better opportunity than this year. In life, when opportunity comes and it's staring you in the face, you can't say, ‘Can you come back when I'm ready?' The history of presidential politics is full of people who waited too long. Bill Bradley didn't do it in '92, and then he did it in 2000. I think he would have gotten it walking away in '92."

Laura Washington

Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times
"He won't run because he learned his lesson in 2000 when he challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and got his butt kicked. Now, as then, Barack needs more seasoning. He's a very smart dude. He's so smart that he knows if he runs now, he'll lose."

Jonathan Alter

Columnist and senior editor, Newsweek
"Yes. He has to strike while the iron is hot. By 2012 or 2016 he will be just another smart senator and no longer a phenom. And even among African American politicians, he will no longer be unusual. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Sen. Harold Ford of Tennessee will be mentioned in the same breath as Obama, diluting his strength. By then he would also have made the inevitable enemies of 8 or 12 years in politics and have many more controversial Senate votes to defend.

"The big negative for 2008 is Obama's lack of experience. This would definitely be an issue, as it was for Abraham Lincoln, who ran in 1860 with only one two-year term in the House of Representatives. But skillful performance on the campaign trail would counteract that criticism. One becomes familiar-and thus ‘experienced'-with great speed [in] the crucible of a presidential campaign. But to survive the charge of lack of experience, he would have to be a natural candidate. Fortunately for him, he is. Beyond that, his biggest asset is that this country has always been focused on the future. That means less interest in going back to the Clinton-Gore years-and a greater interest in moving into the future with Barack Obama."

Arianna Huffington

Founder,; syndicated columnist
"If Barack Obama believes he has something unique to offer, I would en­courage him to throw his hat into the ring. In times of crisis, such as our country is going through, waiting for the ‘right time' doesn't make sense. Anyone who, at this moment in his­tory, would wait for the right time should never run."

Markos Moulitsas

Founder, Daily Kos (liberal blog)
"It's too early for him to run in 2008, and the window is fast closing anyway. What would make best sense would be for him to run for governor in 2010, and then use that as a springboard to a White House bid in 2016. He's young; he's got time. The Senate is not the best springboard for a presidential bid, and a first-term senator in the minority doesn't have the record to make a compelling case for promotion."

Jan Schakowsky

U.S. representative (D-Ill.)
"Barack Obama is my candidate for president in 2008. There's not even really a close second in my view. I think he's the only one that has the capacity to inspire. I think he's the only one who can lift us up over the partisan bickering. A million voters in Illinois voted Bush and Obama when he won in 2004. That's just incredible. Of course, Alan Keyes was running, but Republicans could have skipped that race. And that says something about his unique appeal. And can I just add that I think Michelle Obama would be even more than a 21st-century Jackie Ken­nedy: an accomplished woman as a law­yer with a beautiful family and two little girls? It would be kind of an updated version of Camelot when Jack Kennedy ran."

Molly Ivins

Syndicated columnist and author of Who Let the Dogs In?
"Yes, he should run. He's the only Democrat with any ‘Elvis' to him."

Donna Brazile

Gore/Lieberman campaign manager in 2000; founder and managing director, Brazile and Associates
"Everybody's talking about Barack Obama these days. He's dynamic, engaging, and full of ideas to help reinvigorate democracy and bipartisanship. But I believe Sen. Barack Obama would be a much stronger national candidate if he waited until 2012 when he has proven to the people of Illinois that he will always put them first. If he decides one day to run for national office, Obama has great potential to engage and excite disenchanted Democrats and independents. He may also appeal to disaffected Republicans, especially those moderates no longer considered to be part of the party of Lincoln. His time will come, but not too soon."

Emil Jones Jr.

Illinois senate president
"There are those who say it is too soon. But time may run out if he doesn't do it in 2008. A Democrat will run in 2008 and then [if elected] the same Democrat will run in 2012, and then the vice president will run in 2016. I don't want to add to the pressure that he's currently under at this particular moment. I would love for it to happen, but I will let him make this decision. We are dealing with a time factor, and the opportunity may not come around again before another 12, 16 years, but he will still be a young man. But John F. Kennedy was president at his age, so he's not too young to be president."

David Maraniss

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author
"I know a lot of people who would like him to run now. And as for the inexperience question, did not George Bush say that his life started at 40? And if so, he is now about 20, much younger in that sense than Obama today."

Nick Clemons

Executive director, New Hampshire Democratic Party
"My thought is that it may be too early for him … based on the fact that he will have only been in the U.S. Senate for four years at that point. And I see him as one of the future superstars of this party, potentially bigger than anyone we've had in the past few decades. The Democratic Party is generally not supportive of anyone who has run and lost, and for him to truly take the leap into presidential politics he's got to lay the ground right. And I think in 2008, the primary field will be too crowded. I'm going to assume we win in 2008 and 2012. Two thousand sixteen seems like a long time off. And I don't think it's too early for him to be someone's vice presidential running mate; I don't think it's too early for him to serve in the Cabinet. I think one of the fine lines is: Does he stay in the U.S. Senate and allow himself to be pigeonholed as a D.C. insider? And that's a strategic decision he has to weigh."

Dan Hynes

Illinois state comptroller
"I think 2008 is the time. There is a hun­ger for his type of leadership, his charisma and his ability to inspire people who have become disenchanted. I just think the timing of it is such that, while certainly more experience is something that he might desire, sometimes you don't choose the time, the time chooses you. We are at a unique point in our nation's history, and he is a unique individual and he is the person we need."

Robert Reich

Secretary of labor under President Clinton; professor of public policy, University of California at Berkeley
"Not now. Obama needs to serve at least one full term in the Senate. He has a wonderful political future, but there's no reason to rush it. He can afford to take his time and earn a few stars and scars."

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher, The Nation
"I've thought about this a lot, and I go back and forth. A few months ago my strong sense was, yes, he should. He's a fresh face, he's an inordinately talented politician, he's the only politician in America whom the media loves more than John McCain, and the Senate is the graveyard for presidential ambitions and the longer he stays there, the harder it will be to run eventually. The reasons not to run are: Obama is pretty inexperienced-though I don't actually think it is that big a deal to voters-but more importantly, he hasn't had to pass through the crucible of a really hard-fought campaign. He sort of waltzed into the Senate, and the media still has a crush on him, which might end at any moment. The question is: Can he withstand the scrutiny and viciousness of a presidential campaign? We know he's a uniter, a nonpolarizing figure, but to win the presidency, you have to be a street fighter. On that front, I'm not so sure. So my thinking these days is: He's got time. What's the hurry? He should wait. But then, he might be the only guy we have who can beat McCain."

Dave Barry

Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and author
"Yes, he should run for president, because I truly believe that Am­er­ica has reached the point, as a society, where we can, and should, elect a person whose initials are B. O."