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Crowds adore Obama

Times Staff Writers

Illinois freshman Sen. Barack Obama, borne aloft by a popularity bubble that seems to float higher by the day, did nothing to deflate it Sunday on his first trip to New Hampshire.

Neither did he move any closer to a declaration of candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, for which the New Hampshire primary will be a key early test. In appearances here and in Portsmouth, he was content to play with the notion and tease the expectations of overflow, adoring crowds.

Obama said he was flattered and humbled, but also wary.

“I am suspicious of hype. The fact that my 15 minutes of fame has extended a little longer than 15 minutes is somewhat surprising to me and completely baffling to my wife,” he said at a news conference between events. “And I think what’s going on is people are very hungry for something new. I think they are interested in being called to be a part of something larger than the sort of small, petty, slash-and-burn politics that we have been seeing over the last several years. To some degree, I think I’m a stand-in for that desire on the part of the country.”

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The Portsmouth appearance was a promotional event for Obama’s bestselling new book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

Obama says the book reflects what he thinks of as a fundamental American optimism that problems can be overcome and society can be made better and more fair.

“I think what’s been happening over the last several months is that people have realized that kind of spirit has been lost over the last decade,” Obama said. “It’s a spirit that says we are looking for something different. We want something new.”

Hundreds of people stood in line for up to an hour for autographs. He stayed until the last book was signed. He stayed for an hour after the state party event as well, besieged by party activists. He seemed to revel in the crowds’ enthusiasm.

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Obama has said he is contemplating running for president and intends to decide by early next month. He said Sunday he was still consulting with his family about it.

Sunday’s reception could not have dissuaded him. He was the sole potential presidential contender invited to participate in the state Democratic Party’s commemoration of the 2006 midterm election, in which they gained more control of the state’s political machinery than at any time since the 19th century. He was greeted upon arrival in the state by a column in a local newspaper comparing him to Robert F. Kennedy.

Gov. John Lynch said the state party originally planned to invite the Rolling Stones, “but we canceled them when we realized Sen. Obama would sell more tickets.”

People from 13 states purchased the 1,500 $25 tickets, and hundreds more were turned away. The day was marked by a friendly, almost giddy, festive mood. There was a lot of hugging going on. And cheering. It was a strange turn for New Hampshire voters, who are often characterized -- and, in fact, characterize themselves -- as tough nuts to crack.

Obama’s speech to the party activists, emphasizing the same themes as his book, was interrupted several times by spontaneous applause. Several members of the audience said afterward they were applauding as much because of what Obama represented as for what he said.

“He seems like just a regular guy. He talks, uses language like we would use,” said Nell Conkright, who owns a bookstore in Peterborough. There is a freshness about Obama that she said was compelling.

Obama, just the third African American senator since Reconstruction, was asked if the country was ready for a black president.

“Race is still a powerful force in this country,” he said. “Any African American candidate, or any Latino candidate, or Asian candidate or woman candidate confronts a higher threshold in establishing himself to the voters.... Are some voters not going to vote for me because I’m African American? Those are the same voters who probably wouldn’t vote for me because of my politics.”

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Although only two candidates, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, have formally announced campaigns for the 2008 Democratic nomination, many are considering the race. They include the 2004 ticket, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina; former Vice President Al Gore; Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut; retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark; and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

To some extent, political professionals say, the outline of the contest has already emerged: Clinton versus everyone else, with the rest struggling to emerge as her main opponent. If Obama enters the race, the professionals generally agree that he would immediately become the principal challenger.

David Doak, a veteran Democratic consultant, said Obama “points out the shortcomings of what is otherwise a pretty good field of candidates. He’s clearly a guy who excites people.... He soaks up a lot of the energy [other candidates] would need to harness to break out of the pack. You assume Hillary’s going to have the money, she’s got the name identification, she’s got the organization, she’s got a group of people who’ve been through this before.

The degree to which Obama outshines potential competitors was illustrated by an appearance made by Bayh two nights earlier. He drew perhaps one-tenth as many people.

Although Doak’s comments were echoed by other consultants, many cautioned it was very early. Steve Elmendorf, who worked for Kerry’s 2004 campaign, said, “People will have a chance to prove themselves and get noticed. [Obama] may stumble. Others may stumble, others may shine. There’s a long way yet to go.”

terry.mcdermott@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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McDermott reported from New Hampshire, Barabak from California.


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