MANCHESTER, N.H. — Are Democrats getting past the infatuation stage with Barack Obama?
Some are: “He still has a lot more to prove to people here,” said New Hampshire Democratic state Rep.-elect Dan McKenna, after hearing Obama address a rapturous crowd of 1,500 party activists in Manchester on Sunday.
“The next time he comes here, people will be looking for more substance.”
The excitement over Obama is “great for the party, great for the country,” said State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro.
But in almost the next breath he said, “All we’ve gotten from Barack is good looks, good rhetoric, and great publicity.”
D’Allesandro said Obama had called him a few times and he looked forward to sitting down and talking to him.
When Obama’s juggernaut rolled into New Hampshire on Sunday, it was his first visit to the state which holds its first-in-the-nation presidential primary in January of 2008.
The Manchester crowd and a crowd of about 800 earlier in the day at a book signing in Portsmouth were unprecedented in size for events this early in the pre-presidential primary season.
Veterans of New Hampshire politics were staggered by the size of the crowds and the horde of reporters and TV camera crews.
Obama himself told reporters, “I am suspicious of hype” and “the fact that my 15 minutes of fame has extended a little longer than 15 minutes is somewhat surprising to me…. I think that what’s going on is that people are very hungry for something new.”
He theorized that people are feeling “called to something larger than the kind of petty, slash-and-burn politics we’ve seen over the last several years. To some degree I think I’m a stand-in for that desire on the part of the country.”
It sounded lofty for a man who only two-and-a-half years ago was an Illinois state senator sponsoring legislation on such local issues as requiring commuter trains to install restrooms and allowing court clerks to accept payments over the Internet for traffic fines.
Less retail campaigning?
Traditionally in New Hampshire presidential candidates must do small-scale campaigning, answering voters’ questions at Main Street coffee shops and beauty salons.
The hoopla surrounding Obama changes that, said Democratic lawyer Steve Gordon.
Usually candidates in the early months had to go into voters’ living rooms to field questions.
“He will do that, but he doesn’t have to,” said Gordon. “He’s not going to have the desperate need to go into people’s homes to pitch himself.”
Looking at the size of crowd and the mass of TV cameras, Gordon said, “It’s almost like he has the trappings of an incumbent.”
After the speech Gordon praised it as “very measured,” but said “it was lighter than I expected. I didn’t get any sense of who he was.”
The huge crowd and news media frenzy “tells me he’s a rock star, but it’s a long way to November,” said Gordon’s law partner, Bill Shaheen, who was chairman both of Al Gore's New Hampshire primary campaign in 2000 and of Sen. John Kerry’s in 2004.
Will Obama’s momentum force Sen. Hillary Clinton to jump into the presidential race soon?
“I don’t know if it’s imminent, but she’s got to make a move quick,” Shaheen said. He said he has been swapping phone messages with Sen. Clinton in recent days, but has not talked to her.
Another of Shaheen’s law partners, Lucy Karl, said of Obama, “My concern is that he’s too green. I’ve thought a lot about the foreign policy stuff. If you look at who has been good ultimately on foreign policy – very often it has been our governors, I liked Carter, I loved Clinton.”
“I’m still not convinced Obama is going to play in Topeka” — partly due to his name and his skin color “I just don’t know yet if he can win — because he is so, so new.”
But with a nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink,” she added, “We do go with our guts with people. He’s doing something to people’s guts that most politicians aren’t doing.”
Karl and some of her friends are looking eagerly at Al Gore — not yet a contender in this race — as someone who they think has been proven right on Iraq and other issues. “Would I support a Gore-Obama ticket? Absolutely,” she said.
Race a factor only for some voters
At his Sunday press conference in Manchester, Obama took on the question of whether voters won’t support him because he’s an African-American with a name that will sound foreign to many Americans.
Some voters wouldn’t vote for a candidate because of his race, he acknowledged, “but those are the same voters who probably wouldn’t vote for me because of my politics.”
And asked about his middle name, “Hussein,” Obama said, “The American people are not concerned about middle names.”
At this stage, before he has formally declared that he is running, Obama is minimizing his Democratic label and almost looking over the heads of the Democratic primary voters to speak in non-partisan language to the general electorate.
- “I don’t think it was a partisan message” that voters delivered in last month’s elections, Obama opined in Portsmouth. “I don’t think it was as much a vindication of the Democratic agenda as it was an insistence on the part of Americans that we take the challenges that we face seriously.”
- After calling for higher pay for teachers and development of fuels from corn and other crops, Obama said, “That is not a Democratic agenda, or a Republican agenda. That’s an American agenda.”
- “My obligation (is) to make sure I am willing to partner with the American people on the common-sense, pragmatic, non-ideological agenda that they are hungry for….”
His stump speech is still quite non-specific, with little grit and mostly non-controversial policy proposals, with no details on how he’d pay for them.
But some New Hampshire Democrats are captivated by Obama.
“There’s an excitement about somebody who as created a spark again,” said retired teacher Deb Chase from Gilmanton, N.H. She was wearing an “Obama for president 2008” button. “We were all big Dean supporters; there was all this energy coming out from the Dean campaign… I think Obama has the same kind of spark to him and helps people feel energized and excited about the potential.”
Lack of experience
Is Chase surprised by the fact that a politician with relatively little experience in national politics is being taken seriously as a potential president?
“No, because look at the fellow who’s been in there for the last eight years,” she said. “I am surprised he was taken seriously.” She added, “We didn’t know much about Bill Clinton before he became president either – and he proved to be a very good president.”
She said she would prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton “because I was very opposed to the war. And he was against the war. And she sort of rode the fence and tried to figure out which camp she wanted to be in. But I have respect for Hillary.”
With Obama almost surely in the race and Clinton making phone calls to prominent Democrats in the state, New Hampshire voters are about to be treated to a historic clash.