By HOLLY RAMER
The Associated Press
Friday, December 29, 2006; 9:56 PM
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- It was a crowd to warm any candidate's heart _ even in a New Hampshire winter.
More than a year ahead of the nation's first presidential primary, so many people turned out Friday to hear Democratic hopeful John Edwards' call for a new spirit of American activism that hundreds were left standing outside in freezing temperatures.
About 750 people squeezed into the elementary school cafeteria where Edwards was to speak, but at least that many were turned away. The former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee ended up giving his introductory remarks outside, using a microphone that broadcast his voice inside, before heading indoors.
"What we're asking is for you, the people of New Hampshire, not to wait for the next election to take responsibility," he said. "Identifying a problem and talking about hope is talking about tomorrow. We can't wait until tomorrow."
New Hampshire was the third stop on Edwards's six-state, three-day tour to announce his second candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. The early announcement allows him time to build grass-roots support in states with early nominating contests, including Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, where Edwards finished fourth in 2004.
He's hardly been a stranger since then, returning to the state just three months after the 2004 general election and at least nine more times before officially starting his second campaign this week.
"Town Hall" meetings like the one he held Friday were the hallmark of Edwards' previous run _ he held more than 100 in New Hampshire alone. But although he is claiming an edge in experience over his potential 2008 rivals, Edwards' familiar face may not be an asset _ Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has shot up in polls in the weeks since his first visit to the state attracted a sold-out crowd of more than 1,500 people.
And, perhaps none of the potential Democratic candidates knows the Granite State as well or has as extensive a network of supporters as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady.
Asked by a reporter later how he'd compete, Edwards said: "This wasn't a bad crowd today. ... It doesn't seem like it's that hard."
Edwards said the turnout showed he still had lots of friends in New Hampshire, in addition to those attracted by the theme of his new campaign _ getting Americans involved in solving problems. Many stood in line for more than an hour only to be turned away because there was no room. Those who squeezed inside came ready with questions.
Asked his view on gay marriage, Edwards called the issue "the single hardest social issue for me personally."
"Civil unions? Yes. Partnership benefits? Yes," he said. "But it's a jump for me to get to gay marriage. I haven't yet got across that bridge."
"I wish I knew the right answer," he said after one audience member booed.
But laughter greeted his exchange with an elderly woman who implored him to do more to help her fellow senior citizens.
After describing her frustration about getting a small pay raise only to face an increase in her rent, Edwards inquired whether he could ask her a question.
"Are you going to ask my age?" she said.
"I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid," he said. "Are you going to help make me president so I can do these things?"
"I will help you, honey," she said.
Besides, Edwards, only Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich have formally announced they were seeking the Democratic nomination.
Other potential candidates include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, ret. Gen. Wesley Clark, and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 nominee. Former Vice President Al Gore has said he has no plans to enter the race, but he has been careful not to completely rule out a bid.
Likely to face a larger field of competitors, Edwards is offering a new message focused on universal health care, poverty, energy and global warming. He continued to apologize for his vote to use force in Iraq, but New Hampshire Republicans weren't ready to let him off the hook.
State GOP Chairman Wayne Semprini seized on that vote to claim Edwards has a record of saying one thing and doing another.
"John Edwards likes to talk of two Americas, but in reality there is only one America but two John Edwardses," he said Thursday. "I think trust will be a real issue for John Edwards; he has his work cut out for him here in New Hampshire."