MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Politics-mad New Hampshire, jaded beyond reason by never-ending presidential campaigns, hadn't seen anything quite like this before.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama made his debut in the kickoff primary state to adoring responses yesterday from large crowds of voters seemingly convinced that they were witnessing the next big thing on the national scene.
"I see him as very messianic," said Kelsey Woodward, a 64-year- old artist, at Obama's first stop, in Portsmouth. "People are craving a fresh voice, a fresh face, a fresh outlook."
The 45-year-old Illinois senator, who is tapping into the public's desire for an end to the bitter partisanship in Washington, might not make it all the way to the White House. But he appears to have put his party under a spell that has veteran politicians reaching back to the Kennedy era for comparisons.
His emergence could pose a problem for less charismatic rivals who have spent years laying the groundwork for their own bids. Analysts say there is only so much attention, money and endorsements to go around, and with Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton likely to head the field, there may not be much room for other contenders.
"We've got a lot of 800-pound gorillas this time seriously looking at it," said Raymond Buckley, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, referring to the collection of senators and governors gearing up to run.
Only one or two may be able to compete successfully in the shadow of Clinton and Obama, some analysts say. Money is a major hurdle. A candidate will have to raise $25 million to $40 million over the next 12 months to be competitive, according to campaign aides.
Nevertheless, a candidate other than Clinton or Obama could certainly become the nominee. "New Hampshire's been known to give a little oxygen to somebody that other people aren't looking at," said Buckley.
That didn't seem to be the case this weekend, however, for one Democratic hopeful. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, making at least his seventh trip to the Granite State in the past 18 months, attracted scant attention. About 75 activists turned out to greet him Saturday night at a banquet hall in Manchester, the state's largest city.
Bayh said he felt "fine" about the Obama invasion, insisting that "we're not competing with one another." Bayh said he was doing what presidential candidates always do here - "seeing people in coffee shops and living rooms" - and said was unworried about getting crowded out of the '08 picture.
Kathy Sullivan, the state party chairman, was on hand to thank Bayh for his help in the midterm campaign. Bayh dispatched a cadre of young organizers into New Hampshire to help local candidates in last month's midterm election, which resulted in a surprise sweep of congressional seats and a Democratic takeover of the state legislature.
But when she looked for a speaker to headline a celebration of that triumph, the culmination of a decade-long Democratic surge in the state, Sullivan turned to Obama, and the event quickly became more about the next election than the last one.
Demand for tickets forced organizers to move the rally to a larger venue, where it quickly sold out at $25 a head. "We've never had a standing crowd of 1,500 people," said party spokeswoman Kathleen Strand.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch, re-elected last month by a record margin, joked, "We originally scheduled the Rolling Stones for this party. But we canceled them when we realized Sen. Obama would sell more tickets."
Obama, greeted by an enthusiastic roar, said he was flattered by the excitement surrounding his prospective candidacy. He is expected to announce his plans next month, aides said.
"I actually think that the reason that I'm getting so much attention has less to do with me and more to do with you," he told the crowd. "I think to some degree I've become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit ... that says that we are looking for something different. We want something new."
"America is ready to turn the page," said Obama, who was born when John F. Kennedy was president and was elected to the Senate last year. "This is our time, a new generation that is prepared to lead."
Campaign veterans, including supporters of rival candidates, praised Obama's performance. They said they had never seen such a large crowd so early in the campaign, particularly for someone just setting out on the White House trail - in this case, a freshman senator still seemingly wet behind his jug ears.
At a news conference, surrounded by many of the 150 journalists who had credentials for the event, Obama acknowledged that, as an African-American, he would face "a higher threshold" in a presidential election, as would a woman or an Hispanic candidate.
But by the end of the campaign, he said, "people will know me pretty well [and] whether I'm qualified to serve or not."
Asked whether his middle name, Hussein, would hurt his chances, Obama replied, "It would be one thing if my name was John Hussein Smith." But, he said, "the American people are not concerned about middle names."
Party activists said they are looking for a candidate who could lead Democrats back to the White House in 2008.
Holly Roche, a 42-year-old massage therapist from Rollinsford, said she "wanted to experience the purported mystique" of the junior senator from Illinois.
"I appreciate his message of non-negative politics," she added.
Retired municipal worker Edward Solomon, 63, was part of the crowd that had snapped up the 750 tickets in Portsmouth for a book-signing and a chance to catch Obama's stump speech, built in part around the title of his latest work, The Audacity of Hope.
Afterward, as he stepped from the hall into an unusually mild December day, Solomon said that when he listened to the tall, thin senator's upbeat message, "I could hear a sign of hope, that hope was there for all of us."
WHITE HOUSE RUN
With no incumbent president or vice president in the field, the 2008 campaign is being called the most wide-open presidential race in 80 years. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the contest:
Arizona Sen. John McCain
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback
New York Gov. George E. Pataki
California Rep. Duncan Hunter
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh
Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack
Former Vice President Al Gore
[Sun Washington Bureau]