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."
Obama's day in New Hampshire was remarkable as much for the scene and speculation he generated than for anything specific he had to say. Wearing a black jacket, gray slacks and an open-collar white shirt, Obama delivered low-key remarks, speaking personally about his background and the origins of his belief in a more hopeful politics, as well as giving general views on issues such as energy, health care and Iraq.
He promised a new politics, to replace the "24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative-ad bickering, small-minded politics that doesn't move us forward."
Asked what he believes is different about his politics than those of other candidates, he said, "I think what's worked for me has been the capacity to stay true to a set of progressive values but to be eclectic in terms of the tools to achieve those progressive values. To not be orthodox. To be willing to get good ideas from all quarters."
As for the question of his readiness, Obama hinted he would have more to say about that if he enters the race, but he told reporters: "If I decide to run, at the end of the process, people will know me pretty well and they'll have a pretty good sense of whether I'm qualified to run."
The media contingent was estimated by organizers at 125 to 150 people. Obama's news conference attracted the kind of attention normally reserved for a winner of the New Hampshire primary, not a relative novice who has not even declared for president.
His presidential planning has not quite caught up with the hype and speculation that now follows him wherever he goes. Nor does he appear to be as far along as Clinton or a number of other Democrats, who have been tramping through this and other states for more than a year.
Obama has been meeting regularly with a small team of advisers and with his wife, Michelle, since last month's midterm elections. They have been assembling information about the cost of running in 2008, Obama's fundraising potential, overall strategy, the primary and caucus calendar, and the strength of the competition.
They also have been trying to identify potential staff at a time when Clinton and other Democratic candidates are moving to lock up the most experienced fundraisers, strategists, organizers, advance people and communications experts.
Obama's core team of advisers includes Chicago-based media consultant David Axelrod, Senate chief of staff Pete Rouse, communications director Robert Gibbs, strategist David Plouffe and pollster Paul Harstad. He has also recruited Steve Hildebrand, who ran the Iowa caucuses for former vice president Al Gore in 2000.
Family issues remain a potentially significant obstacle to Obama. He arrived in New Hampshire close to midnight Saturday because he was attending a ballet recital for one of his two young daughters, and the demands of a presidential campaign would keep him away from his family for much of the next two years.
Asked whether his wife is enthusiastic or resistant to a presidential campaign, he said he would keep private discussions private, but added, "She is the smartest, toughest, funniest best friend that I could ever hope for, and she's always had my back. Whatever decision we make, we'll make together."
New Hampshire Democrats had much to celebrate with Obama after their most successful election in a century. Last month, voters in the state tossed out two House incumbents, reelected Gov. John Lynch (D) with 74 percent of the vote, gave Democrats a majority on the powerful Executive Council and turned over control of the state legislature to Democrats for the first time since 1874.
But many in the crowds Sunday were there primarily to take the measure of Obama. Jeff Hughes, who came to Portsmouth with his wife, Barbara, best captured the moment as he summed up the opportunity and the risk for Obama as he weighs whether to run.
"Right now it's his opportunity, his time," Hughes said. "We'll see what he does with it."