Sen. Barack Obama showed flashes of star power during a first visit to New Hampshire that excited Democrats but he still faces plenty of questions about a possible 2008 White House bid.
The freshman senator from Illinois drew big cheers and standing-room only crowds on his weekend trip to the state that helps kick off the presidential race in 2008, showing why his flirtation with a White House bid has sent a jolt of excitement through the party.
"I get the sense he could be something different. He seems to be in a class by himself," said Jack Ruderman, a Democrat from Hopkinton, New Hampshire, who said Obama’s appeal reminded him of Robert Kennedy, the slain younger brother of former President John Kennedy.
But some Democrats in the crowd were uncertain how Obama, whose 2004 election made him the only black in the U.S. Senate, would fare in the spotlight of a national campaign.
"He has the advantage that we don’t know that much about him," said Phil Hatcher, a Democrat from Dover, New Hampshire. "I’m a little skeptical. He hasn’t been in the Senate that long. How does he stand up to the pressure of a presidential campaign?"
Obama’s speech to a sold-out crowd of 1,500 Democratic activists celebrating November’s election wins was optimistic and largely free of partisan name calling or direct attacks on Republican President George W. Bush.
"I like the way he talked about a renewal of hope and spirit. That seems to have been lost in the Bush years," said Robert James of Dublin, New Hampshire.
Obama, who will announce his decision about running early next year, could quickly become the top alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the leader in early polls. Some Democrats fear Clinton is too polarizing to attract independent and Republican voters.
A BLACK PRESIDENT
"I’m not convinced she has the ability to win," Peggy Kieschnick of Dover said about Clinton. But she was excited about Obama.
"He frames issues in a way that will bring people together. He doesn’t talk like every other politician," she said.
Richard Kimball, a Boston lawyer and Harvard Law School classmate of Obama, said Obama was the right person to confront questions about whether America was ready to elect a black president.
"He’s so special, if anyone can take on that issue, he can. He’s not someone who makes race an issue, but he acknowledges it and talks about it," he said.
Phil Preston of Ashland said Obama could be helped by his early opposition to the Iraq war, whereas Clinton has been criticized for being too slow to repudiate her vote to authorize the invasion.
"The thing I like about Barack Obama is he doesn’t bring any Iraq baggage to the table, he was against the war from the beginning," Preston said.
If Obama and Clinton slug it out at the top of the pack, other contenders could struggle for attention and money. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack jumped in the race early in part to grab attention before the heavyweights moved in, and more than a half-dozen others are still pondering bids.
"Everybody knew from the beginning that this was likely to be the most competitive cycle in the history of Democratic presidential politics," said Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who has formed an exploratory committee. "You have to build a plan and a network for that."
But plenty of things could change before New Hampshire voters go to the polls in 13 months.
"If history has its way, whoever is ahead in January ’07 won’t be ahead in the fall of ’07. This is very unformed and Obama, as attractive as he is, is very untested," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. "This thing is wide open — a lot can happen here."