Obama heightens presidential prospects
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Barack Obama sparked an early frenzy Sunday during his initial visit to the nation's first presidential primary state, but said he still hasn't decided whether to run and questioned whether all the hype was just part of his "15 minutes of fame."
The Illinois senator said he is still "running things through the traps" as he considers whether to join a field of Democrats that's expected to include front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and several other more experienced political hands.
"This is an office you can't run for just on the basis of ambition," Obama told reporters at a news conference between packed events. "You have to feel deep in your gut that you have a vision for the country that is sufficiently important that it needs to be out there."
At every turn in New Hampshire, Obama got encouragement to enter the race. Gov. John Lynch joked that the Rolling Stones were originally the headliners at a state party fund-raiser where the $25 tickets quickly sold out. "But we canceled them when we realized Senator Obama would sell more tickets," Lynch said.
He drew 1,500 Democrats to a the fund-raiser and several hundred more at a book signing in Portsmouth. Organizers of both events had to turn away many others who wanted to get in. The media contingent was so large it crowded into a Portsmouth coffee shop with the senator and knocked into tables and chairs as he tried to shake hands with the customers.
History teacher and Democrat Mark Bingham of Alton, N.H., met Obama and said that despite his inexperience, he could rank among presidents named Lincoln and Kennedy. "It's good to see politics going in another direction," Bingham told the senator.
Obama said he thinks the excitement reflects voters' desire for a new, positive direction in politics that is not about him as an individual.
"I am suspicious of hype," Obama told reporters. "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."
Obama's appearance before the state party was to celebrate last month's election, where Lynch won by a record margin and the party took control of both houses of the legislature and New Hampshire's two U.S. House seats. As he took the stage, supporters handed Obama a petition signed by 12,000 people encouraging him to run, said Todd Webster, who started the RunObama.com Web site.
"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 represents," Obama said. "It's a spirit that says we are looking for different. We want something new."
Obama's newness could be one of his biggest liabilities -- he's served just two years in the Senate after seven years in the Illinois Legislature. But Obama tried to turn his inexperience into an asset compared with other candidates who have been governing for much longer, although he didn't mention any rivals by name.
Clinton has not yet begun campaigning in New Hampshire, but she did host a dinner at her Washington home Sunday night for Terry Schumacher, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat who worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns.
Sen. Clinton has made several calls this week to Democratic activists in New Hampshire and around the country, sounding out her presidential prospects.
Several other potential candidates have been making trips to New Hampshire for the last year and a half. Among the most frequent visitors is Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who filled a small room at a Manchester conference center Friday night but wasn't near the draw as Obama on his first trip. Anticipating the inevitable comparison to their visits on the same weekend, Bayh's aides joked that 1,000 more people were in an overflow room.
Bayh said he wasn't intimidated by the Obama mania as he talked to voters one-on-one. "I'm doing the things that matter in New Hampshire," Bayh said.
Because of their pivotal role, New Hampshire voters are accustomed to individual attention from presidential candidates. Obama tried to accommodate them despite the large turnout, staying for over an hour after his speech ended to sign a book for every person who wanted one. He also chartered an $11,000 flight to Chicago late Sunday night so he could greet attendees after his speech without having to worry about catching a plane.
State party officials said 150 members of the media signed up to cover Obama's speech, representing news organizations as far off as Australia and Japan. He answered questions about how his young children, his inexperience, his race and even whether his troublesome middle name -- "Hussein" -- could affect his candidacy.
He said his family is a major concern because his daughters are 8 and 5 years old. He said questions about his inexperience are valid. He said Americans are not concerned with middle names, but that all women and minority candidates have to overcome stereotypes so people will judge them on their merits.
"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," he said.
Obama's advisers said he would consider his choice over the holidays, after his annual Christmas trip to his native Hawaii to visit his grandmother.
Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this story from New York.