Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Obama bandwagon filling up fast

From Scot Lehigh of the Boston Globe:

Manchester, N.H.
ON SUNDAY, George Bruno, a longtime politico, recalled Bill Clinton's first official campaign trip to New Hampshire. Despite having declared for president a few days earlier, Clinton never drew a major-league crowd during that October 1991 swing.

So it's no wonder Bruno was astonished as he surveyed the 1,500 people (plus 150 media types) gathered to hear Illinois Senator Barack Obama on his waters-testing trip here.

"This is pretty amazing," he said. "It is unprecedented."

He was hardly the only one bowled over by what Obama had wrought.

"I have never seen anything like this is my 40 years of being active in politics," said Jack Buckley, the former mayor of Dover. "If I were Hillary, I would be more than a little concerned."

If you were John Edwards, you might be as well, for there was state Senator Lou D'Allesandro, a pillar of Edwards's 2004 New Hampshire effort, giddy as a schoolgirl as he talked about a recent conversation with Obama and marveled at the crowd.

"It is incredible," he gushed.

At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner back in October, D'Allesandro told me he would be with Edwards if he ran again. Does that still hold? Edwards hasn't said he's running, the senator replied. But if he does? Well, "obviously I would be thinking about it strongly," he said, seemingly hedging his bets.

So what is it that Obama was peddling at the great Manchester swoonfest?

Mostly it was this year's hottest political product: an audacious little thing called hope.

Now, a modern-day Oliver Twist could argue that hope by itself can be pretty thin gruel, and that voters might want something more filling. Particularly New Hampshire voters, who pride themselves on their owlish ability to appraise candidates.

Party panjandrums had decided not to let reporters roam into the huge function room to speak with the voters themselves, but by cramming my press credential in my pocket -- and fixing a look of resolute optimism on my face -- I managed to mix in with the folks who had paid $25 to attend the New Hampshire Democratic Party rally.

From what I heard, Oliver Twist would be wrong -- and Buckley looks right.

Hope is working. And Hillary Clinton should be more than a little concerned.

Voters I talked to were not merely curious about Obama. Almost to a person, they were in search of a fresh face, someone inspirational, different, real -- and they felt strongly that Obama fit the bill.

As for Clinton? Some were angry at her over the war. Others said they liked her, but harbored doubts about whether she could win.

Were they concerned about whether the 45-year-old Obama, who has only two years in the US Senate under his belt, is experienced enough for the job? How much real experience did George W. Bush have before he was elected, several countered? (That's somewhat curious reasoning, given the low esteem in which most Democrats hold the current occupant of the White House.)

As voter after voter made clear, governmental experience is not a major consideration for them; instead, they trust their own measure of the man.

If some of Obama's appeal sounds similar to what liberals saw in Howard Dean last time around, there are also significant differences. Dean was a hot, aggressively partisan candidate, eagerly advertising his eagerness to mix it up with Republicans.

Obama is folksy rather than fiery, comfortable and conversational rather than combative. Although he acknowledged the challenges racial bias and his foreign-sounding name could present, the senator said he had always found that "if people get to know you . . . people will judge you on the merits."

He stressed the importance of civility, and the need to find commonsensical, pragmatic, non-ideological solutions for voters' concerns.

That said, the matters he touched glancingly on -- universal healthcare, energy independence, action on global warming, more affordable education, and a phased withdrawal from Iraq -- will have a clear appeal to progressives.

If, as expected, Clinton runs, the immediate question will be this: Who will become the principal alternative to her?

On Sunday, a self-deprecating Obama said he was suspicious of the hype over his visit. Still, his capacity-crowd Granite State audition made clear the strong claim he would have on that role.

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