Obama Heats Up New Hampshire

Illinois Senator Barack Obama waves to a crowd of supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire on Sunday, December 10, 2006. (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)
Illinois Senator Barack Obama waves to a crowd of supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire on Sunday, December 10, 2006. (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)

by Jake Tapper, with Anne-Marie Dorning and Mark Reeves, ABC News

Adoring, standing-room-only crowds giddily awaited Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at his first stop Sunday morning, at a book signing in Portsmouth, N.H. But it didn't sound like the freshman senator was selling just books.

"We've got a series of very important decisions to make, and we have the opportunity to make them not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans," he said in a speech that mentioned health insurance, climate change, lobbying reform and the war in Iraq.

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Obama said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

"It doesn't bend on its own," he added. "It bends because each of us individually, we put our hand on that arc, and we bend it in the direction of justice. That, I think, is the essence of hope. And that is what I think America is hungry for, right now. And I'm looking forward to being a part of that process, with you of bending that arc in the direction of justice."

The excitement Obama is generating among crowds in this first-in-the-nation-primary state could be bad news for his possible Democratic rivals, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the presumed frontrunner.

"I was behind Sen. Clinton prior to getting to know Barack Obama," said New Hampshire resident Kim Cain. "I'm a woman. I would love to have a woman president. But I think she's too much of a politician. I think to effect change, we need somebody outside of that system."

But there is much voters do not know about Obama beyond his charisma and message of national unity. And the process through which the American people may learn more about Obama -- his relatively unstudied state legislative voting record, his teenage cocaine use, questions about a land deal he entered into with a questionable character -- may be unpleasant. And new.

"Sen. Obama has never had a rough political week in his life," said Lynn Sweet, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. "He's never had one negative commercial run against him."

Before another event Sunday for the state Democratic Party in Manchester, at which he was the featured speaker, Obama himself downplayed the voter warmth and the media heat he felt in chilly New England.

"I am suspicious of hype," he said. "I think what's going on is that people are very hungry for something new."

ABC News asked what he would say to voters who may ask what right he has to think about running for president just two years out of the Illinois state senate. Obama said that since he had yet to make up his mind about whether he was in the presidential hunt, a rebuttal would not be forthcoming.

"I don't mind people asking tough questions; I think they should of every candidate," he said. "One of the values of retail politics like New Hampshire is by the end of the process they know where you stand, and they have a sense of who you are."

Leading Democrats say this is not all just hype, and that Obama, should he decide to run, will be a force.

"If I was part of Hillary Clinton's inner circle right now, I'd be worried about Obama," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazille. "He has the ability to raise money. He also has the ability to tap into a vast network of activists."

Obama supporters point out that his mere existence brings out Clinton's greatest vulnerability as a public figure -- likeability.

His staffers jokingly say, "Don't tell mama I'm for Obama."

"Mama," of course, is Clinton.

It may be, as Clinton allies argue, that Obama does more to hurt the other Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as John Edwards or John Kerry, than the powerhouse Clinton.

Either way, Obama left New Hampshire Sunday night setting a pretty high bar for visits to the Granite State, especially considering he'd never even set foot in this state until late Saturday evening.

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