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Obama Feels the Love from New Hampshire's Famous Skeptics

By David Shribman

CONWAY, N.H. -- This is a crowd that is virtually all white. This is the least emotive state in the Union. This is a town that voted decisively for Barry Goldwater in 1964. This is where thousands of people filled the parking lot of Kennett High School in the hope of crowding in to see a black man who is running for president.

This also may be the political phenomenon of the age. Inside the high school, where a banner boasts of 15 state high school boys' skiing championships since 1979, voters of a state where natives like to tell visitors that they can't get there from here are straining -- you can almost see their eyes squinting to will this to come true -- to believe that Barack Obama can go from the gym in Conway to the White House in Washington.

Because this is a place where the phrase mildly enthusiastic means wildly enthusiastic, an outsider has to adjust his perceptions. But by any measure -- and the best one was the way the cars were parked all the way down Main Street -- this was a remarkable turnout. It was a whole lot bigger than the crowd Paul Newman attracted in 1972 when he landed at the little air strip up the road (now long gone) to campaign for Rep. Pete McCloskey, the California liberal Republican who mounted a doomed primary challenge to Richard M. Nixon.

Inside the gym the candidate himself looked awfully young, sounded idealistic, appeared scrawny, seemed a familiar type to New Englanders who have been told for a generation and a half what the young, scrawny and idealistic Jack Kennedy looked like when he ventured north in 1960 to ask New Hampshire to help send him to the White House.

New Hampshire voters are famously realistic, self-consciously independent and sometimes unremittingly mean. Part of the folklore of the place is the unrestrained joy these voters -- who chose Pat Robertson over Bob Dole in the 1996 Republican contest -- take in cutting big men down to size. But in stops here and at Dartmouth College, where thousands more crowded into the Rockefeller Center courtyard to hear him speak, Mr. Obama saw the sweet side of New Hampshire. Ordinarily the sweet side of New Hampshire, if visible at all, is about 4 inches wide -- the side of the tree where the maple syrup is tapped.

Not this time. This was, to be sure, a Democratic crowd, so if Clifford the Big Red Dog had appeared and called for the end of the war in Iraq, universal health insurance and an end to American dependence on foreign oil, he would have been cheered, given a Milk Bone and sent on his way to a rally over in Littleton. But Mr. Obama, appearing in a theater-in-the-round format and turning like a revolving rooftop restaurant to address the crowd, also won warm applause for his reminiscences about running job-training programs for the unemployed in Chicago and for the lessons he drew from the civil rights movement in the South.

There are obstacles galore to an Obama presidency. One of them is named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another is named John Edwards, whose appeal as the liberal purist should not be underestimated in a contest that could be determined by liberal purists. A third is the tendency of white Americans to tell pollsters they'll vote for a black candidate like Tom Bradley, whom the polls indicated could win the California gubernatorial races of 1982 and 1986, only to vote for a white candidate in the privacy of the voting booth.

This is the period when voters are looking to fall in love, or at least to indulge in a little infatuation. But once the campaign moves into its next phase, we are going to wonder what love has to do with it. The 2008 Democratic race has many themes, but the abiding theme is whether anybody can stop Sen. Clinton. Sen. Obama may feel the love right now, but before long the New Hampshire primary and its early-state analogues around the country are going to look a lot less like lovefests and a lot more like prize fights.

Right now a lot of people are falling for Mr. Obama, one of the few candidates who knows how to pronounce the name of the northern New Hampshire town of Berlin (rhymes with swirlin') and smart enough to ask local crowds whether there are any good diners nearby (try the Miss Wakefield, 38 miles south down Route 16). At a time when people, Democrats especially, are angry at government, Obama and his stardust melody makes them feel good about themselves, and about the future. People like that.

"We're proud of our individuality and our self-reliance," he said here in Conway, "but we also have to take pride in what we can do together." That's part of his stump speech, of course, but you can never go wrong talking about individuality and self-reliance in New Hampshire. And when Obama attacks the Bush administration and the Republicans for a philosophy of "can't do, won't do, won't even try," he is identifying himself with the can-do attitude that planted small settlements in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains here and, not incidentally, kept taxes low. Especially kept taxes low.

This may be an unusually early primary season, but it still is early in the primary season. Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have about the same amount of money. Former Vice President Al Gore may yet join the campaign. The war in Iraq grinds on. No sane person makes a prediction in June before an election year. But there's still room for an observation: Mr. Obama may be new to this game, and new to New Hampshire, but he's sure enjoyed a strong introduction. The hills of this state are littered with candidates who didn't even achieve that.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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