What's driving Obama-mania?

Voters are keen on a less caustic brand of politics and the Illinois senator's own compelling personal narrative.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With standing room crowds chanting for the star to show, Sunday's Democratic fundraiser could have been a rock concert. But it was only Sen. Barack Obama's first visit to the nation's first primary state.

If Senator Obama should jump into the Democratic presidential primary, where he is now ranked just behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in recent polls, Democrats in the land of retail politics wonder if there's a living room big enough to hold the throngs who'd come to hear him.

"Right now, he's a rock star. Getting 1,500 people out on a Sunday afternoon ... says something different is going on here," says Jim Craig, former Democratic leader in the New Hampshire House.

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So what's driving Obama-mania?

It isn't a single set of issues such as the war or the economy. Rather, the attraction seems to be a mix of Obama's own compelling personal narrative and many voters' desire for a less caustic brand of politics.

"It's the sense that you're in the presence of someone who is touched with the gift of grace," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Obama, Illinois' junior senator, exemplifies the hope that there's some way to triumph over the intense polarization of American politics, he adds.

A barely known state lawmaker and community organizer in Chicago, Obama shot to superstar status after an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention in Boston. With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, he embodies two racial cultures deeply at odds in American history.

The buzz about Obama has only continued to grow. He was the most requested speaker on the 2006 campaign trail, appearing with candidates in more than 30 states. He has also sold more than 350,000 copies of his second bestseller, "The Audacity of Hope."

But the senator himself is suspicious of the hype. "I don't want to be driven into these decisions simply because of the opportunity," he said in a briefing with reporters before Sunday's event.

According to Obama, his popularity stems from an embrace of a new style of national politics: Rejecting attack ads and a politics of who's up and who's down.

"There's a certain tone I've taken in my career that seems to be resonating," he said at the briefing. "People are looking for something new, and I'm a stand-in for that desire on the part of voters. They want a common sense, nonideological, practical approach to the problems they face."

With Obama as the headliner, tickets for the New Hampshire Democrats election celebration sold out in the first three days.

State party activists had a lot to celebrate: They took back the House and Senate, reelected their governor with a record 74 percent of the vote, and sent two Democrats to Congress. "The last time Democrats took complete control in Concord was 1874," says former state party chair George Bruno.

Activists here say they are looking for a candidate who can carry the momentum of that victory through to the White House in 2008. New Hampshire is already well trampled ground for Democratic presidential hopefuls. Former ticket-mates John Kerry and John Edwards have been in the state nine times apiece since their 2004 run. A dozen other hopefuls have logged in some 40 visits. Senator Clinton has been sounding out leading activists in the state in recent days, but has yet to make an appearance.

"I like Hillary, but I think she's too polarizing, and I don't think the country needs more polarizing. We need someone who can bring this country as close together as it possibly can be," says Anne Stowe, a high school teacher in Nashua. For her, Obama represents a capacity to "accept each other's diverse ideas and not hate each other in the process."

For Catherine Hackett, vice-chair of the Manchester Black Caucus, Obama's appeal is the hope of reconciliation across racial lines, especially after Katrina. She loves the fact that he draws diverse audiences in a state not known for them. "He isn't running on his race. I feel like he's bringing Americans together," she says.

"All politicians claim to be deciders, but we need an effective communicator," says Mark Fernald, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate here in 2004. "Barack and Hillary will soak up all the oxygen in this state," he predicts. "People can't really keep track of more than two candidates."

His teenage daughter, Katie, also in the audience to hear Obama on Sunday, says she was taken with Obama when she watched his speech on television at the 2004 Democratic Convention. "It seemed like he was really smart and knew what he was doing," she says.

Should Obama opt for a presidential run, he'd still have to master the art of living-room politics, say longtime poll watchers here. "The real test for him in New Hampshire is whether he has the stamina to do the door-to-door, living-room-to-living room campaign that New Hampshire voters have come to expect," says Robin Marra, a political science professor at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H.

Obama says he's still vetting whether to take up a presidential run. "This is an office you can't run for just on the basis of ambition. You have to feel deep in your gut that you have a vision for the country that is sufficiently important that it needs to be out there," he says, adding that the needs of his family is a top concern.

In a speech in Manchester, he spoke about American history, mentioning the 13 "ragtag colonies who overthrew the greatest empire in the world," agitators for the vote for women, and immigrants who took the risk to come to America.

He also touched on climate change, energy independence, the war in Iraq, and the need for universal healthcare.

"This is our time, and I'm grateful to be a part of that," Obama told a rapt throng, as he exited the stage.

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