Day 1 in N.H.: Heat and light | The Election Page | Indy Week

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Day 1 in N.H.: Heat and light


"We have the chance to pull together Democrats, Republicans and independents to say we are one nation, one people, and our chance for change has come," said Barack Obama at the Concord High School gym. - PHOTO BY MATT SALDAA
  • Photo by Matt Saldaa
  • "We have the chance to pull together Democrats, Republicans and independents to say we are one nation, one people, and our chance for change has come," said Barack Obama at the Concord High School gym.

One day after Barack Obama’s resounding victory in the Iowa caucuses, the Illinois senator received a near messianic reception at a high school gym in Concord, while John Edwards told a more subdued convention room audience in Portsmouth that his nominal second-place victory proved he could “stand up to monied candidates.”

“We went into Iowa and finished between two $100 million candidates. The reason it worked is we took on the establishment. We took on power and we won,” Edwards said, adding new emphasis to his 0.3 percentage point edge over Hillary Clinton in the caucuses.

Edwards’ “town hall” speech in Portsmouth, delivered with precision and humor, was far from Obama’s frenetic performance in Concord. While both candidates largely stuck to their stump speeches, Edwards talked about his opponents more openly and carefully outlined their differences in policy. (Unlike Edwards, Obama did not mention his opponents by name.) Notably, Edwards acknowledged that his and Clinton’s health-care plans were nearly identical, while arguing that Obama’s plan, which would not require health insurance of all Americans, was not truly universal.

“All of her ideas—which are nearly identical to mine—are good,” Edwards said of Clinton’s plan, which like Obama’s would be funded by rolling back tax cuts of individuals earning at least $250,000. Edwards is calling for tax-cut rollbacks for people earning at least $200,000.

The former North Carolina senator arrived at the Jones Center in Portsmouth early, and with little fanfare. After his speech, he took questions on everything from China to abortion. His audience was almost exclusively middle-aged and older—when the warmup band’s lead singer asked everyone to “raise the roof,” there was only a murmur of reply.

After arriving an hour late to Concord High School’s packed-to-the-rafters gym, meanwhile, Obama savored a rapturous applause, slowly parting waves of students, many of them too young to vote, before taking the stage. Once there, he vamped on such inspiring, yet generic, topics as hope and change, even as he dismissed criticism of focusing too much on abstract topics. While Edwards responded to the criticism that he was the “angry” candidate, by explaining that his anger with corporations reflected strength, Obama was left to explain why he was so “nice.”

“There’s no shortage of anger in Washington, people,” Obama said. “There’s no shortage of bitter partisanship, There’s no shortage of hot air and rhetoric. We don’t need more heat. We need more light.”

Obama extended this explanation to his strategy of appealing to voters across the political spectrum by avoiding confrontation. (During Friday’s speech, he mentioned George W. Bush once, briefly, as setting a poor example of international leadership.)

“We have the chance to pull together Democrats, Republicans and independents to say we are one nation, one people, and our chance for change has come,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to bring a faction together—to stretch a progressive agenda from red state to blue state. Because I am interested in becoming President of the U.S., and that is how we will win.”

In a rare moment of humor, Obama mocked the more widespread—and seemingly ineffective—charge of his political inexperience, by affecting what sounded like Dave Chappelle’s straight-guy accent:

“People will be saying, ‘I know you were feeling really good yesterday, and were really inspired, but you know what? Obama has not been in Washington long enough. He needs to be seasoned and stewed. We need boil all the hope out of him, so he’s like us and then he’ll be ready to lead this country.’”

Meanwhile, Edwards modified his Iowa concession speech, which celebrated a vote for “change”—ostensibly for both him and Obama—by distancing himself from the front-runner.

“The first- and second-place finishers in Iowa are both candidates who talk about change,” Edwards said on Friday. “I like Sen. Obama very much. He’s a good man. But I have a fundamental difference [of opinion] with him about what’s going to be necessary to bring about change. We agree that we need to unite America. We agree that you have to work with members of Congress. We disagree about what’s going to have to be done with oil companies, insurance companies and so forth. You cannot sit at a table and negotiate with these people; it won’t work.”

Karla Ruzicka, 43, of Southampton, N.H., said she was undecided before Edwards’ speech, but registered to volunteer with his campaign afterward, based on his comprehensive, yet straightforward, stance on issues like immigration.

“What I really appreciated about Edwards’ speech is that he addresses the root causes of the issues,” she said.

John Sammel, an 82-year-old Edwards supporter from Northampton, said he first aligned with the candidate because “he just made me feel like I was back in 1936, when I was listening to Roosevelt speak.”

Like Ruzicka, Sammel described Edwards as “straightforward.”

“That’s why I like him. He’s speaking from the heart,” he said.

Sammel said he wasn’t worried that Obama or Clinton would gain more votes than Edwards in New Hampshire, and claimed that he didn’t hear much about either of Edwards’ top opponents in his neighborhood. However, he acknowledged that his neighbors were mostly either apolitical or Republican. He said that most people in New Hampshire were undecided, and would remain so until Tuesday.

Indeed, at the Obama rally in Concord, the Illinois senator asked undecided voters in the audience to raise their hands and, remarkably, at least a quarter of attendees did. Outside the rally, in downtown Concord, few people admitted a preference.

Sybil Higman, a 34-year-old hair stylist at Difference Hairdressers, said she had heard customers with strong, mostly Democratic, political preferences. She said that, as a single mother without health insurance, she would pay attention to Obama and Clinton over the next few days. She did not mention Edwards.

Ruth Arnold, an 80-year-old undecided voter from Florida, was in town to see family, but also waited in line with her husband, an Obama supporter, to make a final decision on the candidate.

“He’s a good man,” she said. “This is going to decide it for me. So far, he’s number one.”

Jamie Myshrall, a 24-year-old from New Hampshire, also attended the Concord rally with an Obama supporter. Before the speech, she was undecided. Afterward, she was a believer.

“It literally gave me the chills,” she said, referring to the point in Obama’s speech at which he painted the concept of “hope” in the historical terms of the Civil Rights movement.

Meanwhile, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, dozens of Clinton supporters and undecided voters trickled out of a speech from Bill Clinton, one of several he gave in the day to strengthen Clinton’s campaign as the candidate of experience.

Christopher Hopkins, 47, attended with his wife, an Obama supporter, and daughter. He said hearing the former president—whom he described as “the smartest person I’ve ever seen”—tell stories about Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments while he was in the Oval Office, led him to support her.

However, one Clinton supporter, who wished to remain anonymous, said Bill Clinton sounded more tired and “flat,” and the audience less enthusiastic, than she had seen before the Iowa caucuses, in which Clinton finished third among Democrats. She said that Bill Clinton acknowledged placing third was a “disappointment.” Asked if she still hoped for a Clinton victory in New Hampshire, though, she quickly got behind her candidate: “‘Hope’ is for Obama. Clinton does. I’m confident she will win.”

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