NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — A busload of reporters and TV cameras awaits Barack Obama as he steps forward, notes in hand, and begins speaking in his sonorous baritone.
Chicken fingers, he says. Cheeseburgers. Barbecued ribs. Baked scallops. Meatloaf.
His words are greeted with utmost seriousness. Reporters scribble notes as the White House hopeful stands in the parking lot of the Wild Boar Tavern, reading the evening's dinner menu and fielding questions about who aboard his campaign RV will enjoy which takeout entree.
Obama does a good job ignoring the absurdity of the moment — or perhaps he highlights it, this Harvard-trained lawyer and political phenom, by keeping a straight face.
A presidential campaign is a long, grueling and, sometimes, uplifting exercise. It is serious business. But from the ground level, it is also a series of days sprinkled with odd episodes, like the scene in northern New Hampshire, requiring not just stamina but a willingness to surrender to a number of strange protocols.
For the cerebral senator from Illinois, this may be tougher than, say, devising a plan for universal healthcare.
On a recent swing through the first primary state — two days, eight stops, 330-odd miles — Obama seems game enough. He holds town hall meetings and a Dartmouth rally, where he plunges into the crowd, shaking hands with both arms, flashing a smile that extends from one big ear to the other, throwing a wave to those 10, 20 feet away. He discusses AIDS and global warming, Iraq and healthcare, habeas corpus and Social Security.
He also takes a carefully choreographed walk across a covered bridge, wields the scooper at an ice cream social and clogs the aisles at a general store when he stops, along with his media and Secret Service entourage, for sandwiches and fudge squares.
But oftentimes there seems a certain distance, a physical remove, a part of Obama that he holds back for himself. He is not a hugger, like Bill Clinton or Bill Richardson, New Mexico's garrulous governor and another candidate for the Democratic nomination.
In the mountain hamlet of Berlin, at the ice cream social, about 200 people gather on a gently sloping lawn as Obama faces them from the steps of a white gazebo. Megan Wilson, 22, stands braced against a cane. She is disabled and shares her dream of becoming a teacher, to help others like herself. She urges Obama to support the federal programs she needs to get by. Later, it is the candidate's wife, Michelle, who embraces the woman and her mother; Obama, summoned by his wife, places a fatherly hand on Wilson's shoulder and thanks her for offering to help his campaign.
The connection Obama forges is through the spoken word, not touch. It was his soaring rhetoric at the 2004 Democratic convention that launched his national political career and it is his voice — rising to a shout, falling to a whisper, as finely tuned as any symphony orchestra — that moves audiences. But he is also a careful listener, hands clasped before him, neck craned slightly forward, eyes earnestly locked on his subject.
"Over the years I've heard candidates come by," said Farrell Seiler, a 62-year-old veteran who accompanied Obama as the candidate placed a wreath at Littleton's small monument for the war dead. "It looks like they open up a mental filing cabinet, pull out a folder, give the script, say, 'Thank you very much,' kiss babies, shake hands and walk out and go to the next function. I think with Obama, he's more of a natural."
But running for president is not a natural lifestyle, and there are things Obama resists.
He skips candidate roundups that others feel obliged to attend. (He is adamant, however, about his hour on the treadmill.) He ignores the complaints of TV crews and holds his town halls in the round, turning small circles at the center of the crowd, even if that means sometimes speaking with his back to the cameras. The media obsession with sound bites is an irritant in itself.
"That's just not how I normally speak," he tells reporters. "That's a part of it that I have to practice." Although, he adds, "I'm not sure that it actually is a measure of whether you'd be a good president or not."
Freed of constraints, his answers tend to meander, lasting two, three, four minutes or more. At one stop, a woman asks about Social Security; she receives an $800-a-month disability check. Obama talks about efforts to partially privatize the program (which Obama opposed), changing demographics, government accounting practices, businesses that "weasel out" of worker pensions.
"It's also true that disability payments sometimes are not sufficient," he says, "and I would have to know exactly what your situation is to determine the category you fall in." He never asks.
Obama's place in the Democratic race — at or near the top in fundraising and polls — means he can hew to the high ground. Over two days, he never directly criticizes his rivals, and President Bush is rarely mentioned. Instead, Obama offers an autobiographical sketch: the mother from Kansas, the father from Kenya. His first run for state office after consulting two higher powers — God and his wife — and how people fumbled with his name — "Alabama?" "Yo, Mama?" Those lines always get a laugh, and Obama chuckles along, as if he hasn't uttered them countless times.
He speaks of cynicism, of broken politics, of healing, community, reconciliation. Let's put our shoulders to the wheel, he says, and we can move history.
He reiterates his unswerving opposition to the war in Iraq — a line that always gets the biggest cheer — leaving unsaid the fact his two main rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina voted to back the invasion before turning against the war. He outlines his proposal to draw down U.S. troops, bringing them home by April 2008.
He offers other specifics, spaced over an hour or so: He would shut down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He favors a big boost in the mileage standards imposed on U.S. automakers. He would increase the money the U.S. spends on foreign aid from 1% to 2% of the federal budget, make the U.S. a leader in fighting global warming.
Voters have questions
But he is vague about some things — how he would force those standards on automakers, for example — and simplistic about others. "It's not rocket science," he says of achieving universal healthcare, a goal that has stymied politicians for generations.
Some walk away less than satisfied. "He was telling me the problems, which I agree with," builder Steve Larson, 50, says in Conway.
"He was telling me solutions in general. But specifically he wasn't telling me how big this pill was that we need to swallow."
A day later, George Hathorn is part of the sprawl covering a grassy swath at Dartmouth. But the 63-year-old architect is more curious that convinced. "I'm concerned about the hype," Hathorn says of Obama's comet-like candidacy. "I haven't seen the substance yet."
It is this question — involving the percentages of steak and sizzle — that dogs Obama, and it clearly irks him. Told of the criticism expressed by some in the crowd, Obama blames those covering his campaign. "One of the questions that I think I would ask back at you," he says, "is what do we need to do to get the national press to focus on those speeches we've been delivering in great detail?"
His tone, however, is even, not angry.
Suffering fools and reporters is very much a part of running for president and if that bothers Obama, if the atmospherics, the minute scrutiny and stagy photo opportunities ever get to him, he doesn't let on.
As he stands on the porch of the Littleton Area Senior Center, making small talk with the gray-haired ladies, one of Obama's two daughters, 5-year-old Sasha, pipes up and asks, "When are we going to do fun things?"
"This is fun things," her father replies.
For more inside political news check out The Times' new politics blog at: www.LATimes.com/topoftheticket
ON THE TRAIL
Obama's way is with words, not hugs
The neophyte presidential candidate works hard on the campaign trail. His answers may wander, but there's that smile and he's a good listener.
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