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Big crowds for Obama signal that 2008 contest is wide open

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Sen. Barack Obama shook up the embryonic 2008 presidential campaign Sunday, igniting a tumultuous response in his first visit to the state that will kick off primary voting for the 2008 Democratic nomination in about a year.

More than 1,500 Democrats crowded into a Manchester armory to see and hear the freshman senator, a turnout local organizers called unprecedented this long before the voting.

The armory crowd roared its approval when Gov. John Lynch speculated that Obama might run, and they interrupted the senator's half-hour speech several times with ovations. His speech focused on forging a bipartisan civil approach to solving problems in education, healthcare and national security. That amounts to "an American agenda," he said, not a partisan one.

Earlier Sunday, more than 700 showed up to see him at a Portsmouth book signing, forcing the event to be moved from a bookstore to a conference center.

The Illinois senator hasn't even decided yet whether to run. And not all who showed up to hear him would necessarily vote for him. But the intense curiosity and enthusiasm about him among Democrats suggests that the party is looking for new leadership—and that the presumed frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham of New York, is anything but a certain winner.

"We've never had an event like this," said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan.

The $25 tickets sold out in a blur of advance demand, and party officials posted signs warning people there wasn't room for anyone else.

More than 150 members of the news media, including foreign press, covered Obama's arrival. Candidates at this stage of a campaign normally consider themselves lucky to draw four or five reporters.

By comparison, another potential 2008 Democratic candidate who's been visiting New Hampshire frequently went largely unnoticed at a simultaneous visit. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana ate breakfast all but anonymously with two other people Sunday in a restaurant next door to the Obama event. The evening before, he hosted a reception that drew about 50 Democrats.

For his part, Obama claimed humility.

"I'm suspicious of hype," Obama said upon arriving in Manchester. "That my 15 minutes of fame has extended somewhat is surprising to me and baffling to my wife."

But he said his civil approach, which he calls "a hopeful politics," might be striking a chord with Americans weary of partisan sniping and gridlock in Washington.

"People are very hungry for something new," he said. "To some degree, I am a stand-in for that desire."

Indeed, many Democrats noted that they like the fact that he's a newcomer to national politics, with just two years in the Senate.

"We're looking for somebody new," said Carol Williams of Manchester. "People are tired of the same old stuff, the same old politics. All the rest of them are part of the old boy, old girl network.

"Barack is eloquent and charismatic. He has the same charisma as John Kennedy," she said. "I know; I worked for him here in 1960."

She wasn't the only one who likened Obama to President Kennedy.

"He's passionate and he's young. It's a Jack Kennedy thing," said Carol Backus of Manchester.

If Obama exudes a JFK-like charisma for some, he doesn't share Kennedy's 14 years of pre-presidential experience in Congress. Some Democrats said they didn't mind his lack of experience; others said it would be a significant hurdle.

"The pedigree is important, but the ability to connect to people is more important," said state Sen. Lou D'allesandro of Manchester. "He's a very attractive candidate."

"He may be a little light on experience," said Rolf Bremer, the party chairman in the town of Brookline. But he said he was willing to look at Obama largely because he doesn't think Clinton can win.

A new national poll last week showed Clinton ahead in the early jockeying for the Democratic nomination, but trailing either Republican Rudy Giuliani or John McCain in a hypothetical general election.

Clinton had the support of 33 percent of Democrats for their party's nomination, according to the Marist College-WNBC poll. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had 14 percent, former Vice President Al Gore had 13 percent, Obama had 12 percent, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts had 5 percent.

An X factor is Obama's race—he would be the first African-American presidential nominee of either major party.

"Race is still a powerful force," he acknowledged Sunday, adding that minorities and women "confront a higher threshold" with voters.

But he said he was optimistic, thanks to his own election and the fact that Democrat Harold Ford, an African-American who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate this year in Tennessee, actually got more votes from whites than pre-election polls had indicated and almost won.

Obama also said he didn't think his middle name, Hussein, would be a problem. If names were a problem, he said with a smile, voters would never get past his first name.

"When you're already starting with Barack ..." he said with a laugh.

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