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Obama’s New Hampshire Trip Sparks Interest in 2008 Presidential Race

December 11, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: At one of several stops Barack Obama made in New Hampshire yesterday, Governor John Lynch summed up the impact the Illinois senator was having during his first trip to this Mecca for all presidential hopefuls.

GOV. JOHN LYNCH (D), New Hampshire: We originally scheduled the Rolling Stones for this party, but we canceled them when we realized that Senator Obama would sell more tickets.

KWAME HOLMAN: Everywhere he went, Obama was mobbed, by curious residents who approached him on the street and by a horde of media, 25 television cameras, 150 members of the press.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Sorry, guys, I didn’t mean to cause this fuss.

KWAME HOLMAN: For many at this coffee shop in Portsmouth, it didn’t seem to matter that their state’s first-in-the-nation primary still is more than a year away or that Obama hasn’t even announced he will run for president. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

At a Sunday morning book-signing event, 900 people jammed a ballroom to hear the senator speak. Tickets ran out in 30 minutes last week.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think that there’s a moment that we are living through in our history right now where we’ve got a series of very important decisions to make, and we have the opportunity to make them, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans. And it’s that promise that I’m most excited about.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many waited more than an hour to shake his hand and get him to sign a copy of his book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Awaiting her turn, Martha Rahn echoed what many local residents told us: Obama connects with them.

MARTHA RAHN, New Hampshire Resident: Because he’s one of us. He’s America. He’s not the rich and the wealthy and the special interests. He’s one of us. I think he’s awesome.

KWAME HOLMAN: Another Portsmouth resident, Dennis McKinley, said Obama could help the nation regain some of the stature it’s lost around the world in recent years.

DENNIS MCKINLEY, New Hampshire Resident: I’m sick at heart with much of what’s happening. But if I allow that to prevail, and I fail to recover hope, I mean, how can I proceed? And I think that’s what he’s saying. And he’s trying to set the table emotionally — and perhaps, as he said, reach to recover and excavate the values, a sort of spiritual recovery.

KWAME HOLMAN: Not so fast, said Fred Hurwitz of nearby Dover. Obama has served just two years in the U.S. Senate.

FRED HURWITZ, New Hampshire Resident: He speaks well, and I think that’s good to hear, for a change. But, you know, I’d like to see what a senator is actually able to get accomplished.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, even New Hampshire’s most veteran political observers said there is something different about the reception Obama received. Jim Demurs ran statewide operations for Dick Gephardt and Al Gore. He traveled stop to stop with Obama on Sunday.

JIM DEMURS, New Hampshire Resident: Everywhere we’ve stopped, people recognized him. He gets out of the car, he’s mobbed by people. It has been something that I’ve never seen. I’ve been with a lot of presidential candidates a year before the New Hampshire primary, and most people don’t even know who they are at this point.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Manchester, Obama headlined an afternoon rally for the state Democratic Party, where 1,500 people, paying $25 apiece, packed the Radisson Hotel ballroom.

ANNOUNCER: It is an honor and a privilege to introduce our guest of honor this evening, Senator Barack Obama.

KWAME HOLMAN: During his 25-minute speech, delivered without notes, Obama addressed the extraordinary attention he’s been getting.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, it’s flattering to get a lot of attention, although I must say it’s baffling, particularly to my wife.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he deflected the focus away from his possible presidential run.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The reason that I’m getting so much attention right now has less to do with me and more to do with you. I think, to some degree, I’ve become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represented. And it’s a spirit that says, “We are looking for something different. We want something new.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Afterward, audience members again were impressed.

NEW HAMPSHIRE RESIDENT: He talks about responsibility. That’s important, his own responsibility, the responsibility of politicians, and the responsibility of the citizenry. We haven’t heard that in decades, a generation.

KWAME HOLMAN: But some thought Obama’s race would be a limiting factor should he decide to run.

NEW HAMPSHIRE RESIDENT: I think there’s still too much racial hatred. I have hope, but it takes a long time to change a person’s feelings.

KWAME HOLMAN: Others disagreed.

NEW HAMPSHIRE RESIDENT: There might be a few people in America for whom that would be an issue, but I just don’t hear it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama has said he is weighing all considerations and will make a decision on running after the first of the year.

Obama brings new hope

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
It was a spectacle yesterday. And in talking to people who have been around the track a lot of times in New Hampshire politics, they said they'd never seen anything like it.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some context for watching the risings of Barack Obama. That comes from NewsHour regular presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Dan Balz, veteran political reporter of the Washington Post.

Now, Dan, you were in New Hampshire with Barack Obama.

DAN BALZ, Political Reporter, Washington Post: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Was it what it appears to be that taped piece and everybody else's taped piece and stories?

DAN BALZ: Jim, it was a spectacle yesterday. And in talking to people who have been around the track a lot of times in New Hampshire politics, they said they'd never seen anything like it. A year out from the primary, 1,500 people pack a ballroom in Manchester; 750 people snap up tickets; and more than that show up for a book-signing at 11:00 in the morning on a Sunday morning in Portsmouth.

And he walked into both rooms, and the first thing that happened was an explosion of cheers. I mean, the interest level in him is extraordinary right now.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a simple explanation for it?

DAN BALZ: Well, I don't think it's a simple explanation, and I think he touched a little bit on it. I mean, I think there is a yearning on the part of a lot of people to try to turn the page away from the kind of politic that we've had for a decade.

You can blame Republicans for it; you can blame Democrats for it. But people know that we've had kind of a poisonous period. He's of a different generation. He speaks in a different way. And I think people would like to think that someone like Barack Obama could move the country away from what we've been doing.

Too inexperienced to be president?

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
Obama is the kind of person that Richard Nixon might have talked about. He said, "Some politicians speak in prose, others in poetry." Obama is certainly the kind who speak in poetry.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what does history tell us about meteors like Barack Obama?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: What it tells us is that they didn't happen too often until about the last 30 years, because, before the nominating process that we now have, someone like this would have had to go through a screening process, usually by officeholders in his own party, governors and senators and congressmen, who probably would have said, "Someone who's only served two years in the Senate can't be president."

John Kennedy ran in 1960, 14 years in Congress. And despite this, many people were saying that even John Kennedy was too inexperienced to be president.

Now that's all changed. If you have this ability to connect, the kind of star quality that Dan is talking about, you know, Obama is the kind of person that Richard Nixon might have talked about. He said, "Some politicians speak in prose, others in poetry." Obama is certainly the kind who speak in poetry. But we're now in a process in an environment where someone like Obama can catch fire very fast.

JIM LEHRER: Does his situation, Dan, remind you of any recent situation, where either they turned out bad or good?

DAN BALZ: Well, you could go back to Ross Perot in 1992 as a possibility. I mean, he kind of came out of nowhere, self-generated in a way, I think, that Obama is not. And we know what happened in that case.

I recall, also -- I mean, in 1995, Colin Powell had just come out with his autobiography. I remember covering that book tour in that fall. And all of the hype, and the build-up, and the speculations...

JIM LEHRER: Colin Powell had 3,000 people turn up for book-signings in the cold in various cities.

DAN BALZ: Right. But I think there's one difference between the two of them, which was: I think there was much more doubt that Colin Powell would actually take the step and run for president and that, if he did, he would have a very difficult time winning a Republican nomination.

Obama doesn't have that. Obviously, you know, no candidate is going to walk to the nomination, particularly with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton at the head of the line. But the glide path for him into this seems clearer than in some of those other cases.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And a lot of the similarity to Perot I agree with, Dan, is that Obama seems like someone who can reshuffle the cards in a way that others could not.

I mean, the country, for instance, you have to go back 30 years, 1976, to find a presidential election year where a Bush or a Clinton was not on one of the two national tickets. These are two names who have been on top of American politics for 30 years.

So to go to this younger generation, someone who's unconnected really to any of that, it does offer people the ability to do that, if they want.

JIM LEHRER: So you then would kind of agree with Obama what he told that audience in New Hampshire, "This is less about me than it is about you and your state of mind," meaning you, the voters?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, he's actually being remarkably self-effacing for a politician in saying that, and also saying that, "I'm amazed that my 15 minutes of fame has been extended." Most politicians don't say that.

But the other thing is that, you know, you have to remember a situation like Ross Perot. He went on "Larry King" February of '92, began talking about the deficit, said that George Bush 41 is not doing it, Bill Clinton is not, the other Democratic frontrunner. It's like the crazy aunt in the basement that no one talks about.

He caught fire very quickly. And as you remember, for about three months in the spring getting to the summer of 1992, Ross Perot was running ahead of George Bush, the president, and Bill Clinton, the punitive frontrunner. He might have been president at any time during that period.

JIM LEHRER: People forget that.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.

A threat to other 'star' candidates

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
Most candidates as they're starting out like a little bit of on-the-job training. They like to make their mistakes in private with maybe one reporter or no reporters around, and certainly no cameras. He won't have that luxury, if he decides to run.

JIM LEHRER: And, Dan, as a practical matter, what do the people who have the most to lose by a rising meteor, meaning Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and even John McCain on the Republican side, do about somebody like Barack Obama?

DAN BALZ: Well, they're watching very closely. I mean, they're just -- like everybody else, they're trying to figure out whether this has the capability of continuing in some form or fashion at this level of intensity.

I think most people doubt that it can; certainly, the Obama people doubt that it can. But they also recognize -- and, particularly, I think in the Clinton camp -- that he presents an unusual challenge to her, that he's of a different stripe, a different idea, as I said, a different generation, and it recasts the race and, in some ways, complicates her ability.

She was going to be the big star on the Democratic side.

JIM LEHRER: Whether you liked her or you didn't like her, she was going to be a star.

DAN BALZ: That's right. She now has to compete against somebody who also has that kind of star power who comes with less baggage. Now, there are risks for somebody is as inexperienced as Senator Obama is to jump into this. But nonetheless, he presents a different kind of challenge for her.

JIM LEHRER: What are the risks for somebody like this, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: For Barack Obama?

JIM LEHRER: For Barack Obama.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One of them is that, you know, he has not been vetted. Hillary Clinton has been in national life 15 years or more; Barack Obama has not been.

In the old days, someone like that would be vetted by this nominating process that was referred to...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: ... you know, people who had worked with someone like this for 10 or 20 years doesn't exist anymore. The current process of primaries, a front-loaded system that lasts about two weeks, puts the onus on people in the media, all of us as voters, to understand who someone like Barack Obama is.

And as a result, there may be a great temptation among some in the media right now to investigate him with a microscope in a way that may not be very flattering.

JIM LEHRER: And there also have been gaffs in history, like the Romney situation, Ed Muskie -- or not gaffs, but things that were perceived as gaffs.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: George Romney, father of the current or outgoing Massachusetts governor, who said, "I was brainwashed on Vietnam." It did not help his candidacy so much. And I think that's one thing where Hillary Clinton is going to have it over him, which is that she has been tested for a decade and a half in presidential politics. There are certain things that you can only learn by going through that experience.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, Dan?

DAN BALZ: This is a candidate who has gotten to this level without ever having a negative ad run against him.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

DAN BALZ: I mean, he was the -- he lucked, in a sense, into the nomination for the Senate in Illinois because the two leading opponents imploded. He ended up drawing Alan Keyes in the general election...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Was not a ferocious opponent.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAN BALZ: Right. I mean, he came from Maryland. So he's never been through the kind of rigor. And, you know, as Michael suggests, the level of scrutiny on somebody like Senator Obama will be intense.

Most candidates as they're starting out like a little bit of on-the-job training. They like to make their mistakes in private with maybe one reporter or no reporters around, and certainly no cameras. He won't have that luxury, if he decides to run.

Obama's popularity

JIM LEHRER: Dan, just as a reporter who's covered many, many presidential candidates and campaigns, did you have the feeling in New Hampshire or even before New Hampshire, just confirmed by New Hampshire, that this was different, this guy was different?

DAN BALZ: Well, there is something different about this, and it was confirmed in New Hampshire yesterday, and that is he appears to be drawing people in who are not the traditional party activists.

The state party decided, when they started this event, that they would maybe try to get 500 people. They figured that would be a pretty good sized crowd in the middle of December. When they got 1,500, they realize they were getting people who were not the persons who hang on every word that candidates have.

And I talked to a woman going out who was, I think, not a person who goes to every political event. She said, "I have not been this excited since I was 10 years old and I saw John F. Kennedy campaigning."

JIM LEHRER: OK, we'll leave it there. Thank you both very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, sir.

DAN BALZ: Thank you.