updated 2/22/2007 10:00:20 PM ET 2007-02-23T03:00:20

Barack Obama’s campaign says 9,000 people showed up for his Los Angeles rally, but it’s hard to know for sure. The crowd sprawled around the stage set up in a park, a sea of upturned faces and waving campaign signs.

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What is clear is that Obama is sparking unusual turnout early in the presidential campaign. Massive crowds are signing up for tickets, standing in long lines and taking time out of their day for the chance to hear the freshman Illinois senator speak in person about his vision for the country.

Obama is taking his campaign to large urban areas outside of the early voting states where presidential candidates typically stump for votes. It’s part of a strategy to build his reputation among voters nationwide who still don’t know much about him and to create an army of small-dollar donors who are invested in his success.

Supporters like Los Angeles rally attendee Leah Hanes, a Canadian citizen pushing to get her U.S. citizenship in time to vote for Obama. The 52-year-old producer said Obama’s challenges growing up of mixed race had given him a depth of understanding she didn’t see in other candidates.

‘Both sides of the country’
“He is a combination of both sides of the country,” said Hanes, wearing an Obama T-shirt that she bought at the rally. “He’s been through his own struggle. (It’s) given him a center.”

Obama is expecting huge turnout for rallies Friday in Austin, Texas, and Monday in Cleveland. More than 10,000 people have signed up on Obama’s Web site for free tickets to each event, according to the campaign.

That’s a larger turnout than President Bush usually gets and certainly more than Obama’s rivals in the 2008 campaign are pulling in.

“I think the crowds are indicative of people wanting a fresh face and wanting a leader who can bring America forward,” said Trav Robertson, an experienced South Carolina Democratic campaign operative who attended events for Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the past week and hasn’t settled on a candidate to support. Robertson said both Clinton and Obama brought out packed and excited crowds, although Obama held his event in a larger setting and seemed to bring out more people he hadn’t seen around in politics before.

Obama’s challenge is twofold — to maintain his popularity for the next 11 months until primary voting gets under way and to turn the curious into devoted followers who will give money and time.

Tickets to the rallies are free, but the campaign requires registering street and e-mail addresses and a phone number.

“Our biggest challenge is to take this energy and focus it on building a strong, lasting organization,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. He declined to say exactly how many people have signed up with the campaign so far at the events because it’s strategic information, but he said it’s in the tens of thousands.

Burton says the campaign is using the Internet to keep the attendees informed and organized and asks them to donate and attend campaign meetings.

Obama is also routinely selling out his fundraising events. His Los Angeles rally was paired with a star-studded Hollywood fundraiser that had to be moved from a 400-seat restaurant to a hotel ballroom that fit 600 because of the demand for tickets that required a $2,300 donation. When the Obama campaign announced a $25-a-ticket fundraiser in Louisville, Ky., Sunday evening, 2,500 of the 3,000 tickets were sold in 12 hours.

His draw was also strong in the early nominating states on his announcement tour earlier this month. The campaign moved a free event at Iowa State University earlier this month from a recreation hall that could hold 1,500 to a coliseum where the more than 5,000 who showed up were able to fit comfortably, although some of the curious were from out-of-state and can’t vote in the Iowa caucus. All 2,300 tickets for a free town hall meeting in Durham, N.H. — the largest 2008 presidential campaign event yet in the state — were snatched up within six hours of the event being announced, Burton said.

‘You can still make a mistake’
The same day, Obama tried an old-fashion campaign stroll down the street in Concord, N.H., but the crowds of well-wishers grew so thick that campaign volunteers walked alongside him, holding up yellow ropes to clear a path.

The crowds are reminiscent of those that turned out across the country to hear Howard Dean in the 2004 primary race on his “Sleepless Summer” tour across the United States. Dean had been in the race for months at that point, versus the few weeks that Obama has been running, but former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi sees similarities in how both candidates were able to motivate supporters on the Internet with a message of change.

Obama needs to avoid Dean’s pitfall of peaking too early, only to be brought down by his own gaffes and criticism from rivals.

“You can still make a mistake and take your own candidacy down or the other candidates can start attacking you,” Trippi said. “There are all kinds of things that happen in politics that blunt this advantage.”

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