When ballots were cast in New Hampshire's presidential primary four years ago hardly anyone in the United States knew the name Barack Obama. Now he is in the thick of a fight with the most famous name in US. Democratic politics. He hoped that a victory in Iowa last week would create a bandwagon that would take him through the nomination. But results came in Tuesday night showing rival Hillary Rodham Clinton with a lead, catching Obama's campaign to be the first black US president off guard.
The Illinois senator and his top advisers were absent from a victory party at a packed high school gymnasium. Supporters cheered every time returns coming in on a huge projection screen showed the race tightening, and then sat somberly when they widened again. Obama had the feel of a winner in recent days after the win in Iowa. People lined up for blocks in towns across New Hampshire in recent days to hear him speak. Those who attended often talked about the chance to see history being made.
"I want to tell my grandkids about how I saw this campaign," said 22-year-old Emily Webster, among those at a rally at Dartmouth College on Thursday.
One young woman attending the event fainted while Obama was onstage. The candidate held up the event for a full nine minutes while authorities attended to her, watching from the stage with a furrowed brow until she was taken out on a stretcher. Comedian Larry David, who happened to be in the crowd wearing an Obama campaign button, broke the silence by dryly remarking, "Sinatra had the same effect on people."
Six weeks ago, Clinton appeared headed for the party's nomination and she revived talk of another Clinton presidency Tuesday night. Now the New York senator and her husband tried to keep Obama's train from rolling to the nomination. She got choked up talking about the choice facing voters, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, sniffed that his campaign is a "fairy tale." Obama's life could be described that way. It was not without hardships _ his father left the family when he was 2 years old to return to his native Kenya, and Obama struggled as a fatherless biracial child growing up in Hawaii.
"If you think about it, the odds of me being here standing before you as a presidential candidate are very slim," Obama often tells voters. "I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents, and we weren't born into money or privilege. What they gave me was love and an education and hope."
He got an Ivy League education and eventually a career in politics _ but he never had a serious Republican opponent. Going forward, the scrutiny and intensity will be unlike anything he has faced.
Obama stopped by a polling site in Manchester on Tuesday, shaking hands with his supporters and those holding signs for other candidates. Three burly supporters of John Edwards were beaming as they shook the front-runner's hand and wished him luck. Obama correctly calculated they were from the Steelworkers union that endorsed Edwards four months ago.
"See you in the general," Obama said, hinting he would win the nomination for the general presidential election in November.