Politics & Government

Voters show Obama that the honeymoon is over

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — As Barack Obama found on the campaign trail this week, there comes a point in a presidential race when voters get over their initial euphoria about how much they like you and start demanding to know where you stand on issues that could be deal-breakers for them.

The Illinois Democrat spoke to hundreds of potential supporters Tuesday at a town hall meeting at Mack's Apples, a roadside u-pick farm. The crowd's mood was jovial but not always forgiving.

Erin Placey, 23, asked Obama to commit to blocking federal money for nuclear power. "That is not green energy," she declared.

However, the day before Obama had released an energy platform that included his support for peaceful nuclear power and more federal research for safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

"Well, I can't make that commitment," he told her. She wasn't happy.

An older man wanted Obama to say he wouldn't vote to approve the Peru Free Trade Agreement. The man predicted it wouldn't help workers in Peru or the United States. He said NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) had helped only stockholders and increased illegal Mexican immigration.

Obama agreed that NAFTA and CAFTA hadn't helped American workers. He noted that he wasn't yet in the Senate when NAFTA was passed, and he voted against CAFTA. But he said the Peru agreement was different because it "contains the very labor agreements that labor and our allies have been asking for."

The man shook his head violently, saying, "I beg to differ with you, sir."

Obama stood his ground: "I have talked to the folks who negotiated this. I've read the agreement. . . . We can't draw a moat around the United States economy. China is still trading. India is still going to be trading. They're still going to be engaging in this global economy, and the notion that we can isolate ourselves from it, I believe, is mistaken."

The man didn't look convinced.

After taking a few friendly questions, Obama was about to wrap things up when he saw Dave Tiffany, a tall, muscular retiree in a blue ball cap, hold up a sheet of paper with "2013" in big type.

"Do you know what this means?" Tiffany demanded.

Obama said he thought so — it referred to the date when he and other leading Democratic candidates at a recent debate had refused to commit to have all troops out of Iraq. Tiffany was frustrated that Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all talked about ending the war but wouldn't promise a time for total withdrawal.

Obama, who's pledged to immediately begin drawing down combat troops if elected, said it would be "simplistic" and irresponsible to promise absolutes when there's an embassy to protect and the chance of al Qaida activity requiring a U.S. military response.

Many in the crowd seemed to accept that.

Not Tiffany, who said he wouldn't consider voting for Obama anymore. "I don't think he understands," he said. "Our country is never going to be at peace until we are out of Iraq."

Obama isn't the only candidate facing voter disenchantment over his answers.

Republican Rudy Giuliani got the cold shoulder at a recent National Rifle Association convention when asked if he stood by his decision as New York mayor to sue gun makers, and he said he did.

Republican John McCain's steadfast support of the war, even as he disagreed with President Bush's strategies, has been perhaps the most enduring example this cycle of what some would call having the courage of his convictions even when it cost him voter support.

For Obama, stuck in second place among Democrats in polls, it's frustrating to turn off any potential voters. He's already fighting a growing perception that Clinton is sure to win the nomination.

"It's over," said Jeff Phillips, a Massachusetts businessman who came to get Obama to autograph a copy of his memoir "The Audacity of Hope."

Phillips likes Obama, but said he now plans to vote for Clinton because he wants to back a winner.

Still, he wanted his book signed, he said, because he thinks Obama will be president in 2012 if Clinton loses next year to a Republican.

"Hillary has such a well-oiled machine, and I don't think that she's going to make a foolish mistake" before winning the nomination, Phillips said. "It's going to be hard to stop her right now."