CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The peers who elected Barack Obama as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review say he was a natural leader, an impressive student, a nice guy.

In his two memoirs and the biographical video on his website, Obama’s legal education is barely a blip, one of the least known chapters of his life. But for the Illinois Democrat who is all but certainly running for the presidency, Harvard was the place where he first became a political sensation.

He arrived there as an unknown, Afro-wearing community organizer who had spent years searching for his identity; by the time he left, he had his first national news media exposure, a book contract and a shot of confidence from running the most powerful legal journal in the country.

Obama proved deft at navigating an institution scorched with ideological battles, many of which revolved around race. He developed a leadership style based more on furthering consensus than on imposing his own ideas. Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.

Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind – and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. It is a tendency that could prove perilous on the campaign trail, as voters, rivals and the news media try to fix the positions of a senator with only two years in office.

“He then and now is very hard to pin down,” said Kenneth Mack, a classmate and now a professor at the law school.

Charles Ogletree, another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Obama’s, said, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.”

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