Barack Obama drew huge crowds over the weekend on his first trip to the key presidential primary state of New Hampshire as he decides whether to enter the race for the Democratic nomination.
The Illinois senator got encouragement everywhere he went. He drew 1,500 Democrats to a state Democratic Party fundraiser and several hundred more at a book signing in Portsmouth. Organizers of both events had to turn away many others.
New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary is more than a year away, and Obama hasn't even said whether he will join the Democratic field. But he's already igniting excitement with his exploratory trip.
Obama's momentum is strong enough to shake up the early dynamics of the presidential race, reports CBS News correspondent Trish Regan. Analysts say his announcement of an exploratory committee forced Sen. Hillary Clinton to start lining up support much earlier than anticipated. Though Clinton is leading in the polls, Democrats were enthusiastic about Obama.
State party officials said 150 members of the media signed up to cover Obama's speech, representing news organizations from as far away as Australia and Japan. A large media contingent crowded into a Portsmouth coffee shop with the senator and knocked into tables as he tried to shake hands with the customers.
History teacher and Democrat Mark Bingham of Alton, N.H., met Obama and said that despite his inexperience, he could rank among presidents named Lincoln and Kennedy. "It's good to see politics going in another direction," Bingham told the senator.
Gov. John Lynch joked that the Rolling Stones were originally the headliners at the state party fundraiser where the $25 tickets quickly sold out. "But we canceled them when we realized Senator Obama would sell more tickets," Lynch said.
As he took the stage, supporters handed Obama a petition signed by 12,000 people across the country encouraging him to run, said Todd Webster, who started the RunObama.com Web site.
Obama said he is still "running things through the traps" as he considers whether to join what's expected to be a crowded Democratic field.
He said his family is a major concern because he has two young daughters. Also, he doesn't want to run just because the timing is right politically; he wants to feel he has something important to offer.
"This is an office you can't run for just on the basis of ambition," Obama said. His advisers said he would consider his choice over the holidays, after his annual Christmas trip to his native Hawaii to visit his grandmother.
Why did Obama's appearance cause such a sensation?
"He is the new thing," Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report told CBS News' The Early Show. "That's what folks in New Hampshire are looking forward to — finding somebody who is new, different and keeps them enthusiastic."
Walter said that what many Democratic activists like about Obama is that "he's not Washington. He's not establishment. He's not part of the system. He doesn't live and breathe it in the way so many potential candidates do. While some would say he lacks a lot of experience — he's only been in the Senate a very short time — that very fact of his lack of Washington experience makes him an attractive candidate. He doesn't sound or look or talk like somebody from Washington."
Obama recognized there has been "a little fuss" over his possible candidacy, but said he thinks the excitement reflects voters' desire for a new, positive direction in politics that is not about him as an individual.
"I am suspicious of hype," Obama told reporters. "The fact that my 15 minutes of fame has extended a little longer than 15 minutes is somewhat surprising to me and completely baffling to my wife."
Clinton has not yet begun campaigning in New Hampshire. But she brought one of the state's prominent Democrats — Terry Schumacher, who worked on both her husband's presidential campaigns — to her Washington home Sunday night for dinner. She also made several calls to other state activists this week to sound out her presidential prospects.
Several other potential candidates have been making trips to New Hampshire for the last year and a half. Among the most frequent visitors is Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who filled a small room at a Manchester conference center Friday night but wasn't near the draw as Obama on his first trip. Anticipating the inevitable comparison to their visits on the same weekend, Bayh's aides joked that 1,000 more people were in an overflow room.
Bayh said he wasn't intimidated by the Obama mania as he talked to voters one-on-one. "I'm doing the things that matter in New Hampshire," Bayh said.
Because of their pivotal role, New Hampshire voters are accustomed to individual attention from presidential candidates. Obama tried to accommodate them despite the large turnout, staying for over an hour after his speech ended to sign a book for every person who wanted one.
He also spent $11,000 to charter a plane to Chicago late Sunday night so he could greet attendees after his speech without having to worry about catching a flight.