Obama Takes First Steps in N.H.

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec. 10 -- The political phenomenon known as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) descended Sunday on the state with the nation's first presidential primary, drawing enthusiastic crowds and trailed by a huge media horde as he continued to stoke interest in a possible bid for the White House in 2008.

It was standing-room-only at a book signing Sunday morning in the seacoast town of Portsmouth, where the 750 available tickets were snapped up within hours of being made available to the public early last week. Here in Manchester, 1,500 people paid $25 apiece to hear him speak at a celebration of the New Hampshire Democratic Party's historic victories in last month's midterm elections.

To the question everyone wanted answered -- Is he going to run? -- Obama was noncommittal. "I haven't made that determination. I'm still running things through the traps," he said. He added, "I want to take my time on it, not only to make sure the politics makes sense but that I feel I have something unique to offer that would help move the country forward."

But he closed his speech here early Sunday night with words that seemed to signal growing interest in a campaign. "America is ready to turn the page," he said. "America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation is prepared to lead."

Aides said a final decision will come in January, while in the meantime the Obama team continues to prepare the machinery for a campaign if the senator concludes that the time is right. Pronouncing himself "suspicious of hype," Obama said he would not be driven into the race "simply because of the opportunity but because I think I will serve the country well by that."

For those who came to see Obama, comparisons with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who leads the early national polls testing possible candidates for the Democratic nomination, were inevitable.

Clinton has been making calls into New Hampshire for the past week in anticipation of a possible 2008 campaign, but is not expected to appear in the state until next year. A number of Democrats who came to hear Obama said that, as much as they admire Clinton, they think she cannot win and see the senator from Illinois as a potentially attractive alternative.

All through the day, veterans of New Hampshire politics marveled at the swelling interest in a possible candidacy by a first-term African American senator who has had a book atop the New York Times bestseller list for the past month but who still has produced little in terms of a record as a national politician.

"In all my history, nobody's ever had a crowd this big, this early," said Charles Campion, a veteran party strategist based in Boston, as he watched Democrats assemble Sunday afternoon in Manchester.

This being New Hampshire, where citizens wait to see a candidate several times before declaring their allegiance, curiosity as much as real support attracted many of the people who came to see Obama. They wanted to know more who Obama is, what he believes and whether after two years in the Senate he is ready to be president.

"I need to know a little bit more about him, his stance on some serious issues," said Marilyn Johnson of Kittery, Maine, who was in the front row in Portsmouth. She worried that he is too inexperienced to be president, saying, "I think it would be a mistake for him to run in 2008."

Others were already ready to commit to an Obama candidacy. "He had the true spirit we're looking for," said Kathryn Frieden, a physician from Manchester. "I do hope he runs. I haven't been so excited by someone since JFK, when he was campaigning when I was 10 years old."


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