Following Barack Obama through New Hampshire.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 11 2006 12:17 AM

Barack Star

Following Obama through New Hampshire.

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Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—Brenda Bladen was trying to explain why she liked Barack Obama so much—he was authentic, selfless, and inspirational. He was restoring her faith in politics. "I'm not comparing him to Jesus Christ but … " she said, before talking about the senator's humble beginnings.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

No description or venue seemed big enough to accommodate Barack Obama's first visit to New Hampshire. In Portsmouth, it was standing room only as he signed his book The Audacity of Hope in a community ballroom normally used for wedding receptions. The 750 tickets for the event sold out in 24 hours. (One thousand people showed up.) In Manchester, 1,500 tickets to a Democratic Party celebration were snapped up in three days. (About 1,700 showed.) "We originally scheduled the Rolling Stones," Gov. John Lynch joked to the Manchester audience before Obama was introduced, "but we canceled them when we figured out that Sen. Obama would sell more tickets." When Lynch said, "Sen. Obama, should you choose to run," the crowd interrupted with one of the biggest reactions of the night.

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It's easy to see why New Hampshire Democrats were in a frenzy over Obama. He is a winning presence in a room. He is stylish in his uniform of white shirt, no tie, and dark blazer. He carries himself with the weightless self-possession men's magazines achieve only by employing a team of stylists and wardrobe artists. Even his left-handed signature is elegant—a B and an O connected by confident slashes. If he really were a rock star, he'd have it etched into the side of his private plane. "I didn't know about the charisma factor," said Jessica Hayes leaving Portsmouth. "Now I know. I'm in love." (In Portsmouth, people waited in line for over an hour to have him sign a copy of his latest book.)

But coolness doesn't get you elected, and coolness wasn't what had the New Hampshire audiences even more excited after they heard Obama speak. They were in love with the senator's message, a call to political renewal and rebirth that eschews what he calls the "24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative-ad, bickering, small-minded politics." The audiences in New Hampshire reacted to his remarks with one-word appraisals: inspirational, uplifting, moving.

Obama was calling the country to a new sense of purpose but he also seemed to be offering a preview of his campaign narrative. The audacity of hope, as he described it, is a calling to use your will and imagination to take on impossible tasks. He traced that spirit through America's history, arguing that it animated the founders, the abolitionists, and the immigrants who came to the country looking for a better life. Those causes were ennobled because they were carried out against great odds and when cynical voices said nothing could be done. This narrative will serve two political purposes if Obama runs. It makes his inexperience a virtue—he's not a part of the cynical system he's uprooting—and it gives Obama historical gravitas by linking his attempt to change politics to those sweeping social changes he cites.

Obama has said he will announce whether he's running for the White House early in the new year. He's been meeting with key advisers to talk about fund raising and hiring staff and discussing the enormous commitment with his wife. Asked in a press conference whether his wife is enthusiastic about a presidential campaign, he said he would keep private discussions private, but added, "She is the smartest, toughest, funniest best friend that I could ever hope for, and she's always had my back. Whatever decision we make, we'll make together." (This will not lose him female voters.) Newsweek reports that she is already on board.

It looked like Obama was already running. (The swarm of media following him made it look like he'd already been elected.) Aides collected names and contact information of those attending the book signing, in order to contact them later. At a local coffee shop, Obama touched as many passers-by as he could, being careful in most instances to find out if they were residents or visiting from out of town, so that he could focus his attention on those who could vote for him in the primary. He also displayed skill at the finer political points: He paid special attention to young children, sharing stories about his young daughters; used his wife, who was not with him, as a foil to make fun of himself; and paid careful attention to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

If he decides to run, Obama faces the difficulty of any politician campaigning against politics as usual—he can't act politically or he ruins his brand. Running for president is exhausting, brutal, and chaotic even if you're using the old playbook. Obama is suggesting he will go through that slog under a new set of rules that include a higher standard of candor for himself and greater fairness toward his opponents than has ever been practiced in electoral history. That is audacious and perhaps impossible.

Obama is a smart enough politician that he knows he has become too popular too fast. He knows that he benefits from being in the first stage of political courtship, where he can get away with sweeping and grand generalities. "I am suspicious of the hype," he said at his press conference. He downplayed the fuss over his potential candidacy, saying he is just the flavor of the moment and a mere "symbol or stand-in for a spirit that says we are looking for something different—something new." It's wise for him to temper expectations for his candidacy. If voters stay in such a deep state of affection, they may get disappointed some day when he doesn't walk on water.

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