MANCHESTER, N.H. – Sen. Barack Obama says he may have to overcome questions about his inexperience, stereotypes about his race and even a middle name that reminds Americans of Iraq's former dictator.
Despite all that, the Illinois Democrat received plenty of encouragement to enter the presidential race during an initial trip to this pivotal campaign state.
Barack Hussein Obama drew the kind of political frenzy that is commonplace in New Hampshire in the final month before the nation's first presidential primary.
In this case, it happened more than a year in advance for a man who hasn't even decided whether he's running.
Obama said he is still "running things through the traps" as he considers whether to join a field of Democrats that's expected to include front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and several other more experienced political hands.
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.
He got encouragement everywhere he went in New Hampshire. 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.
State party officials said 150 members of the media signed up to cover Obama's speech, representing news organizations as far off 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 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 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."
Obama's newness could be one of his biggest liabilities — he's served just two years in the Senate after seven years in the Illinois Legislature. But Obama tried to turn his inexperience into an asset compared with other candidates who have been governing for much longer, although he didn't mention any rivals by name.
He said he thought Americans would look past his name and his black skin and judge him on his merits once they got to know more about him.
Clinton, D-N.Y., has not yet begun campaigning in New Hampshire. But she brought one of the state's prominent Democrats — Terry Shumaker, 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 chartered an $11,000 flight to Chicago late Sunday night so he could greet attendees after his speech without having to worry about catching a plane.