Hope for Obama in New Hampshire

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Barack Obama-mania landed in New Hampshire over the weekend, when the man many have the audacity to hope will bring the Democrats the presidency in 2008 paid a visit to the site of the first Presidential primary. A fundraiser for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, originally intended for about 500 people, sold more than 1500 tickets to people from 13 states — and that didn't include the more than 100 reporters who showed up. Seven hundred came to another event to hear Obama speak and sign copies of his best-selling book. "It harkens back to RFK," said Lou D'Allesandro, a New Hampshire state senator, "all of the new people coming out. And this phenomenon is country-wide."

And his audiences were not disappointed. "He was so inspiring," said Sarah Blodgett, a 30-year-old who drove 30 minutes from her Massachusetts home to attend an Obama book signing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "He had me on the verge of tears. No politician has been this eloquent and this personable in years." Obama's stump speech includes much of the typical Democratic message — more spending on heath care and education, energy independence and an emphasis on improving relations with other countries, often in words that differ little from what John Kerry said in 2004. ("How can it be that we Americans spend more money than any nation on earth [on health care] and yet we still have 46 million uninsured?") But his emphasis is on weaving in his own personal story — the son of Kenyan father and mother from Kansas who rose to be a U.S. Senator — and other stories of people who overcame long odds. He noted how "a group of 13 ragtag colonies" achieved independence; how "rabble-rousers" throughout American history had worked to ensure equality for women and minorities; and" how "at each and every juncture of our history, there's been somebody that has said we can do better." "What's truly audacious is to believe that something different is possible, to hope, to aspire to change," he told a crowd at a book signing in Portsmouth.

The rest of New Hampshire is likely to start hearing more of Obama's hope-based message soon. Obama is supposed to spend the holidays in his native Hawaii weighing his 2008 decision. According to people who have spoken to him, he's weighing family considerations, but also more practical ones, like how he could build a campaign infrastructure that could rival that of Hillary Clinton and other potential candidates who have been preparing for a presidential run for years — as well as whether a losing campaign would hurt his political future. But those who have talked to him expect he'll decide to run. He's already starting to take some key steps, meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in important states, like House Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina, and leaving "Hi, I'm Barack Obama" messages on the voice mails of elected officials in both New Hampshire and Iowa.

In fact, Obama advisers have already started to map out the rough outlines of a presidential campaign. It would focus on what the Illinois Senator considers one of his key, if intangible, assets, his emphasis on hope. "I think what's going on is people are very hungry for something new; they are interested in being called to something larger," he told a throng of reporters in New Hampshire larger than those Kerry had well after he had won the nomination in 2004. "To some degree, I think I"m standing in for that desire."

And he and his camp are preparing to deal with his most obvious liability, his lack of experience. If the Democrats nominated Obama, who served as a Illinois state legislator for seven years before joining the Senate in 2004, he would have the shortest tenure in statewide office of any nominee from either party since 1952, when first-term Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson took on Dwight Eisenhower, who had not held elective office. One of Obama's likely opponents, Delaware's Joe Biden, served in the Senate for a decade before his Illinois counterpart even graduated from college; Obama's legislative record from his two years in Washington is so slim that one of his biggest accomplishments was a bill he got passed that creates a Google-like database where Americans can search all government spending. In October, Kerry, who is considering another presidential run, said Obama should run "if he feels that he is ready." A top adviser to another of the likely candidates lumped Obama and likely candidate John Edwards together as candidates who give good speeches but "are not ready to be president." Obama's charisma has been compared to Bill Clinton's, but the ex-President himself has suggested he would have trouble getting elected today, because of the complicated foreign policy decisions the nation faces.

Still, in an interview with CNN last month, Obama addressed the issue head-on, saying "I think the important thing is not experience per se. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had the best resumes in Washington and initiated a fiasco in Iraq." Obama's advisers are looking to turn the experience question around on his possible Democratic rivals as well, because many of them voted for the Iraq War in 2002 and have since been criticizing it. "Barack Obama in 2002 gives a speech and says that the war will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and cost thousands of lives — and he's inexperienced?" said one Obama advisor. "The quote-unquote experienced guys got it wrong; he got it right."

More than even the question of experience, the toughest challenge of all may be turning all of the buzz around Obama into an actual campaign. "The question is, where do go from here," said D'Allesandro." At the book-signing, one woman said she loved Obama's speech, except for the parts about religion; he discusses his work in his 20s as a community organizer at churches and how his famous line (and book title) "the audacity of hope" actually came from his pastor, and she said she felt this was a subject that shouldn't be discussed in polical speeches. The woman said she figured he was only talking so openly about his faith because political consultants advised him to, but Obama is, by all accounts, actually quite religious. With so little actually known about Obama, it will be interesting to see if the Illinois Senator can maintain his wide appeal — Obama is perhaps the only presidential candidate who could get invited to major events by both conservative pastor Rick Warren and the liberal group MoveOn.org — as people learn more about his policy views, personal beliefs and background.

"If you asked people what Barack Obama has done, stands for and has accomplished as a Senator, I don't think they would be able to answer," says former Democratic Party chairman Steve Grossman. "And that's not a criticism. I don't think people know a lot about Barack Obama, but they know he's inspirational and he's appealing."