Campaign Diary: Celebrity Showdown In N.H.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., addresses New Hampshire voters during a campaign rally at Stevens High School in Claremont, NH., Monday morning, Jan. 7, 2008. After Obama's big win in the Iowa caucuses last week he is campaigning for New Hampshire's first in the nation presidential primary on Tuesday Jan. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia) AP

This campaign diary is written by Andrew Kirtzman, a veteran correspondent for WCBS-TV in New York City. Kirtzman is the author of "Rudy Giuliani: Emperor Of The City," an account of the former mayor's stormy tenure as the Big Apple's chief executive. He will be writing regularly on the presidential campaign for CBSNews.com.


It's 1am in my hotel lobby, and it's growing crowded in here. An ear-splitting fire alarm has gone off in every room and hallway, jolting guests out of their beds. Now over a hundred of us are gathered in sweatpants and t-shirts in front of the reception desk as management searches for a key or a computer code to shut the thing off. The siren noise is making my head pound.

Nice hotels are hard to come by in this state, and I'm stuck in the town of Bow, at the lowly Hampton Inn. Unlike the Des Moines Marriott, there are no camera crews in the lobby, no European reporters riding up and down the elevators. Ron Paul isn't sitting in the restaurant here - there is none - and Tim Russert has been replaced by a drunk with a beer bottle.

At times, the whole clubby atmosphere of the campaign bubble seemed like half the reason to be on the trail - until Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. At that instant, everything changed. This feels less like covering a horserace than witnessing history.

Earlier in the evening, I'd been to the annual 100 Club Democratic fundraiser in Milford, an event so large that its 3,000 guests filled a dome covering an area the size of a football field.

It became a kind of celebrity showdown between Hillary Clinton and Obama, with supporters of one trying to out-shout supporters of the other. You'd think that Clinton, the candidate of the establishment, would have been able to rig a party event pretty easily - and, to be fair, a large sign-waving crowd gave her a noisy greeting. But when Obama appeared, the noise reached a roar, the aisles grew clogged with supporters and the event turned into a gigantic rally.

The candidate seemed exhausted, and went through his familiar lines with less conviction than usual. But, like a rock star playing a beloved song, Obama can buzz a crowd just by reciting some familiar lines. As he talked about "change" and "hope," a college-aged woman to my left literally jumped up and down, screaming like a Beatles fan at Shea Stadium. I thought she might faint.

Earlier, Clinton delivered a rendition of what you might call the "don't believe the hope" speech, the one about how it takes experience to achieve the kind of change Obama seeks. It's an eat-your-peas lecture about the importance of working hard, and it's a major downer. It's not hard to tell these days that Clinton resents being cast as Hubert Humphrey to Obama's Bobby Kennedy, but disparaging his optimism only reinforces the generational chasm. As we know by now, it hasn't worked.

This week she finally dropped the speech in favor of extended question and answer sessions with regular folk. At one event I attended, she was barraged with questions about health care, her forte, and Clinton answered them at length and in great detail. It didn't seem unusual that one audience member shouted out "what about dental?" Not surprisingly, she riffed at length about the importance of dental benefits. I tried and failed to imagine Obama getting a similar question at one of his recent events. He's been way passed dental for a long time now.

The parking lot for this event was a mile away, and organizers provided yellow school buses to shuttle guests from the hotel. I was the last one aboard one of them. I squeezed past row after row of white passengers until I found an empty seat next to a young black college student from Houston, Texas named Todd Hendricks. He had spent his Christmas money to pay for his trip to New Hampshire and have the opportunity to knock on doors for Obama. On his lap was an "Obama" sign from the event, which he was keeping as a souvenir.

I asked him what he thought about Clinton's speech. "Standard Hillary," he said. "It seemed like the complete opposite of Obama - just flat, insincere and contrived, every sentence screened by a focus group."

Obama, he said, "was so pure, so real." His face lit up when he talked about him.

The image of that student remains in my head as I sit in this lobby with the ringing alarm. Is this all for real? Is Obama The One, chosen by history to reach Martin Luther King's promised land? The kid on the bus clearly believed so, and had come here to be a part of his journey.

The implications of the senator's rise in the Democratic race are so potentially momentous you almost don't want to let yourself go there. And yet as I lay down to sleep this evening, I can think of little else. The fire alarm finally ceases. But events tonight are conspiring to keep me awake.

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