Obama shakes hands with all eight participants, sits down, and smiles graciously. "One of the great things about running for President is that you get to meet people from all walks of life," he says. "In some ways, it makes me very optimistic."
In the course of the next hour, Obama fields questions on topics ranging from the cost of child care and workers' pensions to health care and the war in Iraq. The small group discussion is intended to show Obama interacting with everyday folks, expressing concern about their problems.
Obama, a 46-year-old first-term Senator from Illinois, is one of eight candidates vying to become the Democratic nominee for President in the 2008 election. There are another eight candidates competing for the Republican nomination.
Despite all the bells and whistles of politics in 2007from 24-hour news channels to bloggers and YouTubeyou still can't run for President without campaigning the old-fashioned way: shaking hands, answering questions, and meeting voters face to face. In late October, Upfront spent a day with Obama on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, where he appears to be trailing Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
The New Hampshire primaryby tradition, the first in the nationis critical for Obama and all the candidates. Doing well there generates momentum and positive coverage that helps raise money and support in the contests that follow.
Tripping Over Candidates
"A good performance in New Hampshire can change a campaign overnight," says Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "A bad or disappointing showing can evaporate a campaign overnight."
Which is why in the months leading up to its primary (tentatively set for early January), New Hampshire is crawling with presidential candidates who crisscross the small state, meeting voters one-on-one and participating in debates and forums. The week that Upfront followed Obama around, seven other candidates held at least 21 other events in the state.
Kevin Landrigan, a political reporter at the Nashua Telegraph who has covered the primary since 1980, says the compressed calendar this year means candidates no longer have the luxury of spending days or weeks at a time in the state as they used to. "Because these folks have so many other places to go other than New Hampshire and Iowawith [more than] 20 states voting on Super Tuesdayit tends to make the campaigns even more frenetic," Landrigan says. "They often try to jam as much as possible into the days they're here."
Back in the Black Orchid Grille, Obama is wrapping up his hour-long roundtable talk with voters. "This was a really useful conversation," he tells them. "I'd like to be able to extend it further."
But there's a schedule to stick to, and the Senator is already running late. He poses for photos with the participants, signs copies of his book that some brought along, and then slips out the back door with his entourage.
The roundtable discussion is a classic example of "retail politics"selling yourself to the public, one voter at a time. This means that presidential candidates visit diners and Rotary clubs and chat with folks they meet. Retail politics is both a local phenomenonNew Hampshire voters demand itand an important part of the national election process.
"The flip side of retail politics is that it's done for national consumption," explains Dean Spiliotes, an expert on New Hampshire politics. "Meaning a candidate goes and has coffee at a luncheonette knowing full well that a picture of him doing that may turn up nationwide in the news. We kind of become a stage onto which the rest of the country can peer in and see what participatory democracy is like."
It's not practical, Spiliotes explains, to interact directly with voters this way in big states like California or New Yorkor later in the process when 21 states are voting on a single day and candidates will have to decide where to spend their time. By then, candidates' appearances will be tailored for TV exposure to reach as many people as possible.
The next scheduled event is Obama's official filing of the primary papers with the New Hampshire Secretary of State. At 12:25, Obama arrives at the State House in Concord, the capital, to file his papers. Applause erupts in the hallway as he approaches.
The formal filing takes just minutes. Standing with New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, the man who sets the date for the primary, Obama hands him a check for $1,000the fee for a candidate to appear on the ballot. And in accordance with New Hampshire tradition, he signs a commemorative poster: "It's time for real change," he writes. Then he looks up at the large crowd of reporters and adds, "and it's gonna start right here in New Hampshire."
"I just want to say how proud and pleased I am to actually file," he says. "The kind of retail politics that is necessary here not only benefits New Hampshire, but it benefits the entire country."
The reporters have a few minutes to fire questions at him: Do you think your race will be an issue with predominantly white New Hampshire voters? (Bottom line: no.) Are you where you expected to be in the campaign at this point? ("We're actually farther ahead than we expected. One thing I was sure of is that a 46-year-old named Barack Obama would be an underdog.")
His staff cuts off the questions. There are more than 500 supporters waiting for Obama to speak at a rally in front of the State House. He needs to get outside to address them.
'Fired Up, Ready To Go'
It's about 1 p.m. when Obama emerges and jogs across the plaza to greet the roaring crowd. He chants along with them the phrase that has become a kind of theme for his campaign: "Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go!" Obama shakes hands and climbs up onto the platform to speak. He thanks local leaders and then launches into his stump speech, which includes harsh criticism of the current administration.
"All across America, people are tired of George Bush," he declares. "People are tired of a government that's not listening. They're tired of incompetence, and they're tired of indifference on the part of the government. Most of all, they're tired of a war that never should have been waged, that's cost us billions of dollars and that's destroying our standing in the world." The crowd goes wild. He promises if elected to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to provide universal health care, and to enact legislation to tackle climate change. Each pledge prompts cheers from the crowd.
After his speech, he works his way around the barricades, saying hello and shaking hands of supporters. He is flanked by Secret Service agents in dark suits and sunglasses.
At 1:35 he ducks inside and the crowd begins to disperse. A few minutes later, he goes next door to a small brick building to do an interview with Katie Couric, the CBS Evening News anchor, for an hour and a half.
By 3:15, the Senator's caravan of five S.U.V.'s and two minivans leaves. As usual, they're running late. Obama is supposed to be in Newark, N.J., for a 4:15 rally. Later that night, he has another fund-raiser in New Jersey. Then it's back to New Hampshire, for more events the following day.