When Barack Obama appeared here Tuesday for a town-hall-style discussion on healthcare, the Illinois Democrat had yet to announce his stunning fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2007.
But the political world had a hunch the numbers would be huge – perhaps even rivaling those of his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. And they did: Senator Obama raised $25 million to her $26 million. The race to top the 2008 Democratic ticket is wide open.
For some New Hampshire voters, though, the big bucks seem more a cause of concern than a reason for excitement. At the healthcare forum, one woman asked Obama if he would be, in essence, a captive of his donors. The senator then hinted at what could be a central challenge of his campaign going forward: maintaining that sense of freshness and "outsider-ness," while playing the insider game of big-league fundraising essential to any successful presidential bid.
"Listen, I would love not to have to raise money so I could spend all my time in town-hall meetings," Obama told voters at the event hosted by the Portsmouth Herald.
He defended himself by saying that throughout his political career, he had sought to limit the influence of money in politics. But, he added, fundraising was a game he had to play to be competitive.
Obama also could have pointed out that a significant portion of his fundraising has come from small donors – those contributing at the $25 and $100 levels, far short of the $4,600 maximum allowed per donor for the primary and general elections combined. The next day, the Obama campaign reported donations from 100,000 people, versus 50,000 contributors for Senator Clinton.
For the legions of candidates competing for both major-party nominations, the money chase – and, arguably just as important, the chase for public attention and media buzz – has never been more intense. And with the compressed nominating schedule, in which the Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina contests are quickly followed by a "big bang" multistate primary on Feb. 5, 2008, New Hampshire is more important than ever. A candidate who fails to do well first in Iowa and then here will have a hard time recovering in subsequent contests.
But to New Hampshire voters, with their decades-long tradition of getting the first look at presidential wannabes in living rooms and VFW halls, there's a feel of business as usual – albeit much earlier in the cycle than in the past.
Voters at events featuring Obama – or "Obommer," in the local brogue – spoke well of him, but few seemed ready to commit firmly to vote for him when New Hampshire holds its primary next January (or possibly in December). New Hampshirites who appreciate their early-decider role like to take stock of as many candidates as possible, in person, before calling themselves firm supporters of anyone.
When asked if Obama's race will affect how he does in New Hampshire, one local Democrat replied that he thought it would help the senator – despite the fact that this state has only a small minority population.
"People in New Hampshire like the underdog," says Don Routhier, an attorney from Somersworth, N.H., attending an Obama forum at a VFW hall in East Rochester, N.H. "They like the fact that he's not the establishment candidate," he adds, referring to Clinton.
"He has the 'it' factor," says Michael Sullivan, a radio broadcaster from Dover, N.H. "I'm too young to have seen Bobby Kennedy, but I get the sense that he's like that, he's got that charisma." But even if both men seem favorably disposed to Obama, they stress that it's early, and they plan to go to other candidates' events before committing to anyone. After all, says Mr. Sullivan, "we're used to making this decision while the snow is falling, not melting."
At Obama's second event of the day, the healthcare town hall, some attendees expressed frustration at the senator's performance. He spent two hours listening to voters' tales of woe about health insurance, interjecting his own questions and comments, but came to no conclusions. In fact, that was the point: Two staffers took notes, which will be posted on Obama's campaign website. As the senator formulates his healthcare proposal, visitors to the site will be allowed to comment in a new-style interactive policymaking process.
But to Clif Horrigan, a retiree from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in nearby Durham, the event was frustrating. "I was hoping he would spell out some general principles," she said. "Instead, he kept sliding off people's stories, and I couldn't get a feel for what he believes in."
In polls of New Hampshire Democrats, Obama still ranks second, behind Clinton. In the latest CNN/WMUR poll conducted by UNH and released April 3, Obama is statistically tied with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Clinton has slipped to 27 percent, Mr. Edwards has risen to 21 percent, and Obama is at 20 percent.
Whether Obama's big splash on fund-raising totals will affect the polls remains to be seen. And besides, many political analysts say it's too early to give the polls serious consideration in any case. "I'm a believer that they're meaningless," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Many voters, too, are still in those early days of exploring their choices. Dana Pearson, a retired real estate agent in Laconia, N.H., came out of an event Tuesday for Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut – a dark-horse Democratic candidate – still not even sure which party's primary he will vote in when the time comes. He used to be a Republican, and now he's an independent.
And what does he think of the early start to the campaign and unprecedented levels of fundraising? "It's wasteful – a waste of time and money," says Mr. Pearson, noting his Scottish heritage and reputation for frugality.