Looking to deny Barack Obama another win, a noticeably more freewheeling Hillary Rodham Clinton subtly likened her rival to Democratic Party nemesis President Bush on Saturday while John Edwards mocked the idea of a nice candidate bringing change.
Edwards hinted he would welcome a second-place finish to Obama that advisers said they hoped would turn the contest into a two-man race and take Clinton out of the game. Edwards narrowly edged Clinton for second place in Iowa, which he couched as an upset that he would be happy to replicate here.
What happened Thursday in the Iowa caucus "is going to happen here in New Hampshire," Edwards told an overflow crowd at Lebanon High School auditorium. Even though he effectively acknowledged he wouldn't win the state, he was relaxed and playful, shucking his suit jacket after the speech and shooting hoops with his shirt tail hanging out while the crowd applauded.
All three candidates drew crowds so large they had to be moved to overflow rooms. Thousands lined up hours in advance to hear Obama speak at a Nashua high school where Clinton was scheduled to campaign Sunday. "We are on the cusp of creating a new majority," Obama told a crowd of about 2,500 who filled the gymnasium.
The heightened campaign activity preceded a final presidential debate late Saturday night, three days before New Hampshire votes. Clinton and Edwards hope to stop Obama, the victor in Iowa, from capturing the first-in-the-nation primary that would only add to his momentum as he pursues the nomination. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who finished a distant fourth in Iowa, also was scheduled to participate.
Campaigning in Concord, Clinton encouraged her daughter, Chelsea, to move around barriers so more voters could fit in. She jettisoned her stump speech in favor of a more informal question-and-answer session with voters where she showed off a sharper sense of humor.
She drew laughs from the audience with a derisive portrayal of Bush that could also be used to describe Obama.
"He said he'd be a uniter, not a divider. He said he'd bring America together," she said of Bush. "He didn't need a lot of experience, he had this great intuition, he understood people, he could go meet with rogue leaders, look in their eyes and their souls, solve our problems. Remember that?"
Scrambling to make up a deficit of support among younger voters, Clinton later held a question and answer session with a table of young people at a bagel shop near the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
She responded to questions on global warming, improving the U.S. image abroad, education policy and other matters, generally drawing on parts of her standard stump speech for the answers. But she earned at least a few converts among the attendees.
Ryan and Anna Pekins, 18-year old twins from Durham who said they plan to vote in Tuesday's primary, said they came away very impressed with Clinton.
"I was leaning toward Hillary before and now I'm pretty sure I'll vote for her," Anna said. "I think she keeps in mind that not everyone wants to see change in the country and the plans she proposes appeal to those who support change and those who don't."
Edwards told reporters he is more able than Obama to achieve change because of his years battling corporations as a personal injury lawyer. He said when dealing with oil, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, "I don't think you can nice them to death."
Asked if Obama, a former constitutional law instructor, is too nice, Edwards replied: "I'm suggesting we have a battle and a fight on our hands" to improve life for working class families.
"This is not something I have to read about in a book," Edwards said. "I've been fighting these people my entire life. ... For me, there's nothing academic or philosophical about this."
Obama responded to critics by arguing that people also said Abraham Lincoln wasn't ready to lead the country and that he understands hope alone isn't a prescription for change.
"I love the word, but lately some folk say, 'Ahh, he's always talking about hope. He's so idealistic. He's a hope-monger,'" he said.
"Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignorance of the roadblocks and hurdles that stand between you and your goals," he continued. "It was hope that allowed slaves and abolitionists to resist that evil system and would allow a new president, who many said wasn't ready to chart out a new course, that would ensure that this nation would not remain half slave and half free."
He asked how many voters still hadn't decided who to support, and hundreds of hands shot up. Among them were Mike and Laura Morrison of Merrimack, N.H., who said they are interested in Clinton because of her husband's successes and planned to return to the gym to hear her speak. But the Morrisons said they were attracted to Obama's message of unity and inclusion and of embracing Democrats, independents and Republicans.
"He wants to bring everyone together," Mike Morrison said. "It's time to get rid of the divisiveness of Bush versus Clinton which has been going on for five terms."
Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox's highly rated "The O'Reilly Factor," desperately tried to get Obama to come on his talk show after the event. An Obama aide Marvin Nicholson and Secret Service agents told the conservative commentator to stand back as he pushed ahead toward the candidate.
O'Reilly got into a shoving match with Nicholson, but he finally reached Obama. O'Reilly shook his hand, told him he was eager to meet him and would love to have him on his show. Obama said he would think about it, Nicholson said, but not until after the primaries.
Obama also picked up the endorsement of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.