MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Barack Obama presented himself as a commonsense, pragmatic, non-ideological Democrat on Sunday as he opened his anticipated presidential campaign in this first-in-the-nation primary state.
Obama drew huge, excited crowds at a signing for his best-selling second book in Portsmouth and then again at a rally in Manchester for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, with a sellout crowd of about 1,500. He also made several smaller stops.
Every veteran New Hampshire observer I interviewed said the Obama reception was extraordinary for a first visit from a presidential hopeful.
The Illinois Democrat was very conscious that New Hampshire is a state where retail politics prevail and voters expect personal conversations with contenders before they make up their minds.
"We check them all out," said Laurie McCray, a registered nurse from Portsmouth at the book event with her son Michael Nowak, who has Down syndrome. As Obama was working the front row after his speech, he noticed Michael, stopped and offered to pose for a picture.
Still waiting for Hillary
McCray took Obama up on his suggestion -- but that does not mean by any stretch that Obama closed the sale.
"I've seen Vilsack, Bayh, Edwards, Biden, Dodd," said McCray, ticking off the names of the Democrats who have made many stops in New Hampshire in their quest for the 2008 nomination.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? The New York senator is expected to announce her presidential run next year.
"Haven't seen her yet. I need to wait on that," said McCray, who is leaning toward former Sen. John Edwards.
Obama, at a press conference, said he is "still running things through the traps" about a 2008 presidential campaign.
Race, said Obama, whose father was black and mother white, "is still a factor." Minority candidates have "a higher threshold in establishing themselves with voters."
However, the decision to run has been made, and Obama is poised to announce early next year, after he returns from a holiday visit to his native Hawaii.
McCray is but one of many New Hampshire legendary tough customers. Obama's challenge will be to translate Sunday's very warm greeting into votes in a primary that is more than a year away.
Pair will dominate
William Shaheen, who was the New Hampshire chairman in 2004 for John Kerry, in 2000 for Al Gore and in 1975 for Jimmy Carter, said of Obama's reception, "Some of it is infatuation.
"But he needs to be vetted, and that is what the New Hampshire primary is about. They need to test his mettle, kick the tires, and that is what they will do as this process goes on. ... Obviously they like him now. But liking does not mean you are going to vote for him," Shaheen said.
Obama will enter the 2008 primary with Clinton as his major rival. The pair will dominate the field.
Clinton's team is assessing the impact of Obama in the race. But contrary to some reports, Clinton did not organize a large dinner with New Hampshire Democrats in Washington in response to Obama's Granite State trip.
"She may have dinner with one or two friends from New Hampshire during the next week, but nothing more than that at the moment," Lorraine Voles, a Clinton political spokeswoman, said in reply to my question. "She has just begun the process of calling people."
About those ears . . .
Obama on Sunday talked about how the nation needs a commonsense, pragmatic and non-ideological agenda. He deliberately veered away from taking a Democratic victory lap even as Democrats claimed Congress and clinched every major office in New Hampshire.
"A resounding message was sent," Obama said in Portsmouth. "And I don't think it was a partisan message. Blue Democrats are feeling good about the
election results. But I don't think it was as much a vindication of a Democratic agenda as it was an insistence on a part of Americans that we take the challenges that we face seriously and we start coming together to solve them."
Obama is very sensitive about his press. After his press conference, he headed toward New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and chided her -- in a kidding way -- for a comment in the 12th of 14 paragraphs in an Oct 21 column. She wrote that Obama's "ears stick out."
"I just want to put you on notice," he said.
"I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears."
Said Dowd, "We're trying to toughen you up.''
On the Sweet blog: The Obama stump speech. Obama on being Barack Hussein Obama. http://blogs .suntimes.com/sweet/