The triumphant return to New Hampshire last Friday of both presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his rival-turned-campaign partner Hillary Clinton brought events of the last six months full circle. I say that from a personal perspective, because last January I spent the weekend of the New Hampshire primary – a period of great advancement for both Obama and Clinton – at my brother's home in the tiny town of Unity, where they staged their first joint rally.
Talking with residents of Unity and surrounding towns and monitoring the local media coverage of all the candidates' travels through the Granite State, I was struck last January by two things: Obama's fast-growing popularity in the region and the deep support and respect that Clinton enjoyed there. I in fact saw more people in more places publicly promoting Clinton – hanging posters, carrying signs, stopping strangers on the street – than I did supporters of Obama or any other Democratic contender. I did not attend any Clinton rallies, but I had the good fortune of being front and center at an impromptu Obama rally on the steps of the town hall in the small town of Lebanon, where so many people had turned out for a scheduled indoor rally that hundreds had to be turned away. They remained standing outside, hoping to get just a glimpse before Obama entered the building. The size of the crowd was simply too big to ignore. Obama stopped and made a memorable speech on the steps that became a top news story that night in the national media.
I also observed widespread love and support that snowy weekend for John McCain, clearly the most popular Republican contender in the state. (Last Friday and throughout the weekend, McCain posters lined the roads that Obama and Clinton traveled to their rally. My own informal observation indicated that there were scant few posters for Obama.) And I was stunned at the time by disparities between what I saw in the local media and what was being reported in the national media, especially about Clinton.
I reported on all of this in the article reprinted here and in a companion piece titled Why Hillary Won in New Hampshire. In hindsight, my foresight at the time proved accurate. McCain, Obama and Clinton would emerge as the three most significant players in this crucial election year. Anyone paying close attention in New Hampshire last January came away with a good idea of how events would play out in the months to come. But few could have imagined that Obama and Clinton would eventually return as a formidable campaign duo, and nobody could have foreseen that such an event would take place in Unity, of all places. And yet, it all made perfect sense.
The following "Classic Jack" commentary written by Ed Martin was originally published at JackMyers.com on January 11, 2008.
Barack Obama: Media Superstar
Sen. Barack Obama this weekend became a true media superstar, in part because of his assured performance during Saturday night's nationally televised debate among the Democratic contenders in the New Hampshire primary, but also because of his outsize success at "retail politics" -- the simple act of getting out and meeting people face to face.
It's not for nothing that the cover of the Boston Herald yesterday featured a striking full-page photo of Obama jazzing a crowd in the Granite State with the headline "Barack Star!" A sub-head at the bottom of the page named him "The candidate every other candidate wants to be." The headline on the inside was "Barack 'n' Roll." (The Herald, incidentally, has endorsed John McCain for president.)
Just think -- it wasn't that long ago we were all tantalized by the possibility of the candidates campaigning in virtual reality. Suddenly, the old methods are once again the best. Even in this era of burgeoning digital communication, there is still great value in the archaic act of meeting people in the town square and talking to them -- even if they are busily recording every word you utter to post online, taking pictures of your every move to e-mail to their friends and rushing home to blog about their brushes with greatness.
I was in New Hampshire this weekend, not in the media-saturated city of Manchester, but 75 miles north and west in the tiny town of Unity, located near the city of Claremont. Watching local primary campaign coverage on WMUR, the Manchester-based ABC affiliate that teamed on Saturday with ABC News and Facebook on the nationally televised debates by Republican and Democratic candidates, I was struck by the palpable energy in the crowds at all of the candidates' many appearances.
But nothing I saw on television over the weekend prepared me for what I witnessed in person on Monday morning at City Hall in the small town of Lebanon. Obama's rally there -- his second of the day, following an appearance in Claremont -- was truly exciting to behold. Thinking back on it later in the day, I thought I might have overreacted, in part because I do not regularly attend political rallies, making this a new and exciting experience no matter what. But last night I noticed that Obama's stop in Lebanon, which turned into an impromptu double-rally, was one of the top stories on many national broadcast and cable news programs, considered worthy of special attention by seasoned hard-news professionals.
As you can see in the photos here on this page, hundreds of people (and two enthusiastic canines) poured into little Lebanon from all directions, bringing traffic on the main street between City Hall and the town green to a standstill -- this after the cavernous City Hall meeting room was already filled and the doors to the building closed. Just when it seemed that the folks in the street might not get to see him, or might have to wait outside for an hour or more while Obama addressed the hundreds of people inside, his campaign workers hit the sidewalk and invited people to gather in front of the City Hall steps. Moments later, photographers were leaning out of the windows above the steps and camera crews were spilling out of the front doors. The crowd cheered when someone tested a microphone. And then Media Superstar of the Moment Barack Obama stepped out of his campaign bus, parked behind the building, and dashed through an alley to the front steps, having chosen to speak to the crowd outside before going in.
"You caught us by surprise," he said to the still-growing crowd, apologizing that the room inside could not accommodate everyone. "What we’re seeing here today with all of you is representative of what is happening all across the country. We're here to try something new, to pull together Democrats, Republicans and independents."
He then spoke for about ten minutes, at one point acknowledging the sudden surge of support he has been enjoying since the Iowa caucus. "I'm riding the wave, but you are the wave," he raved.
As he neared the end of his remarks he said, "We're one day away [from the primary]. I hope all of you vote for me. But if you don't vote for me, vote for somebody! Vote for change!"
The crowd -- largely comprised of teenagers and twentysomethings -- roared. Obama then set about shaking hands "for as long as they will let me," as he put it, referring to his schedulers.
It certainly seemed as if those of us on the crowded main street of Lebanon were witnessing something special, and perhaps historic.
Still, one might conclude from the national media's sudden obsession with all things Obama that he was the only candidate generating waves of good will and outsized excitement in New Hampshire over the weekend. That simply was not the case. I know that rallies for Hillary Clinton, John McCain and John Edwards also drew big spillover crowds, and I'm sure others did, as well. The general sense of interest in and enthusiasm for the political process demonstrated by the citizens of New Hampshire was thrilling to see.
Here are my observations of Primary Weekend in New Hampshire, culled from conversations with people there and from paying close attention to WMUR and several area newspapers, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Valley News and the Eagle Times.
In her own way, Hillary Clinton was stirring up just as much excitement as Barack Obama, albeit with a slightly older crowd. One could not drive around the Upper Valley or the Lakes region of the state without seeing people standing at street corners with Hillary posters or positioning signs in mounds of snow. From what I saw on television, her rallies were always well attended (though there were plenty of empty seats at an appearance in Claremont on Monday afternoon by former President Bill Clinton).
Media madness to the contrary, New Hampshire residents could not have cared less that Hillary lost her cool for a few moments in the Saturday night debate. And they had zero tolerance for name-calling, backstabbing and media over-reaction to the same. They care about one thing only: The issues! They're tired of media claptrap, and they don't easily suffer fools. They want serious, no-nonsense reporting by serious, intelligent, experienced journalists.
John McCain is much admired in New Hampshire. Media reports about his popularity there have not been overstated.
Mitt Romney's popularity seemed to be in sharp decline, especially after his performance during the debate on Saturday night. People were put off by his attack ads against McCain, which flooded local television (along with a crazy amount of ads from all the candidates, the cumulative impact of which was mind-numbing).
Overall -- as Anderson Cooper accurately noted last night on CNN, and as was abundantly evident in the New Hampshire media during the last few days -- there is a palpable level of excitement in the state over this primary. Citizens in every town appeared to be totally energized and interested in hearing what multiple candidates had to say. That likely says as much about their enthusiasm for the candidates as it does their dismay with the current administration. Regardless, coverage of this campaign in the months ahead should be uncommonly dramatic and powerful and will provide much riveting news content on television and online. Perhaps more people will pay more attention than usual -- and not simply because the accursed WGA strike is reducing their viewing options.
All photos on this page by Doug Martin.