Barack Obama's People Problem

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Barack Obama speaks at a house party organized in support of his presidential bid, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Lauren Smith, 22, drove an hour from her home in Manchester, N.H., and then waited 90 minutes in torrential rain to see Senator Barack Obama speak at an ice cream social in this small town of Sunapee.

She was excited to ask the freshman senator from Illinois about whether he would, if elected President, fund drugs for AIDS victims abroad, especially in Africa. But Smith was disappointed when, after an hour and 13 minutes, Obama left before she could pose her question to him.

The Sunapee event, on July 19, was meant to be one of a more intimate series of gatherings that the Obama campaign has been trying to pull off in recent weeks. But the lure of Obama drew more than 500 people, many of whom drove for more than three hours from neighboring Massachusetts to this hamlet of 3,000. The candidate has proven he can draw rock-star-like crowds across the country. But he is having trouble limiting audiences so that he can focus on what is known as "retail" campaigning, in which candidates meet voters in calmer settings and spend more time answering their questions.

Obama's popularity has generated ample buzz, celebrity endorsements, and record numbers of donations — valuable assets for any campaign. His challenge now is to build relationships with voters in early primary states without tripping over his greatest strength: his own celebrity.

"It's frustrating to him — typically, the events are large," David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, said the next day as Obama spent an hour shaking hands and working the rope line after a town hall meeting in Manchester. "When he was running for Senate, he thrived on that. We'd go down south and there'd be 12 people in a VFW hall. He really enjoyed that interaction." Now, Obama rarely gets the opportunity to meet people in such relaxed settings. "It's exhilarating to get crowds like this," continued Axelrod, gesturing to the Manchester crowd of more than 650, "but we are trying to mix it up a little and get smaller groups as well, so that the nature of the interaction is more personal."

In Sunapee, the rain held off just long enough for the attendees — most of them crammed under a tent built for 100 — to hear Obama speak. He kept his remarks brief, then took questions for not quite half an hour. And then he got down to the business he clearly enjoys, engaging people one-on-one. At one point, white shirtsleeves rolled up and khaki pants spattered with raindrops, Obama even jumped atop a picnic table to deliver an impromptu soapbox lecture on Iraq. If the Sunapee crowd had topped out at around 100, the Senator might have been able to answer all of the questions people hoped to ask him. What Smith and her two friends discovered, however, is that when hundreds of people are willing to drive as far as they did to hear Obama speak, retail campaigning becomes Wal-Mart campaigning: It's all about volume. All three left unsatisfied and still undecided.

With his intense schedule, sometimes making six stops per day on the weekends, Obama is relatively parsimonious about his time. In the nearly two dozen Obama events in nine states that I've been to, I have never seen him stay longer than 90 minutes from entrance to exit. Obama will never be the underdog who has hours to sit at a house party until every last question is answered. And the traveling circus that surrounds him — the pack of national press, a grueling fundraising pace, and Secret Service protection — all serve as hurdles to making those personal connections.

"We have a lot of ground to cover here because Barack Obama is not a fixture in the national political scene," Axelrod said. "Out in the country, we need to touch as many people as we possibly can." Perhaps that is why Obama seems so keen to hear other people's stories when he takes questions. At the Manchester town hall, he asked a woman to tell the crowd about her struggle with illness and health care coverage. At an ice cream social in Berlin, N.H., over Memorial Day weekend, he did the same, urging another woman to talk about her time volunteering.

That same weekend, Obama chatted with reporters about the challenges he faces connecting with voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where small, diffused populations usually force candidates into rural areas and smaller settings. But that weekend again, Obama was hit with the same problem. The Berlin ice cream social drew more than 300 people, and some, like George Stanley, a local resident, left disappointed that they didn't get a chance to fully interact with the candidate.

"It's a high-class problem to have," Obama told reporters the next day, adding that he planned on making more surprise stops at shops and diners in order to better connect with voters. This past weekend, after the Manchester event, the Obama caravan swung by Cesario's, a local restaurant, for a slice of pepperoni pizza. There he chatted up Maggie Wells and Sara Morrow while stealing some of their French fries (buying and delivering more to them on his way out). Both women were excited to meet Obama. But once the shock of his surprise visit wore off, and they remembered questions they would have liked to ask him, he was long gone.

"In most cases and for most candidates who enter the race as long shots, the retailing starts early and is designed to convince those who are paying attention that they deserve to be taken seriously," said Mel Dubnick, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "But for... the early frontrunners, like [New York Senator Hillary] Clinton or Obama, who enter on a wave of enthusiasm, the process works the other way. They get the crowds and attention they need to generate resources and supporters, but ultimately they have to overcome the impression that they are mere media celebrities."