Welcome to the Center of The Political Universe

I was at the center of the political universe last Friday, or so it seemed for a few hours anyway, when my small New Hampshire city of 21,000 became the first stop after the Democratic National Convention for America’s president, first lady, vice president and his wife who view our state’s four electoral votes as critical to winning the election.

We’re accustomed to politicians traipsing through our tiny state due to our honor of being the First in the Nation Presidential Primary so this was not the first time Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, Joe Biden or his wife, Jill, had visited the Granite State. If you’ve heard the joke about the New Hampshire voter who was asked if he liked a certain candidate and responded: “I don’t know – I’ve only talked to him three times,” I assure you it’s no joke for some of us. For example, I’ve spoken with Barack Obama five times thus far, including five minutes over the telephone.

But this was the first time I’d seen him as president – and the first time a sitting president, vice president and their wives had together visited New Hampshire so there was no way I, or 8,000 other people, were going to miss this event.

The first hurdle was braving the long, slow-moving lines at the Obama campaign headquarters earlier in the week to secure free tickets to attend Friday’s rally in Portsmouth. I worried for days that this was an indication of the logistical nightmare to come. Fortunately, it took only 45 minutes to get through security and everyone was in such good spirits that no one minded the wait. Even the few Romney supporters who showed up were polite and seemed to enjoy the festivities. (Their candidate held a rally in another part of the state Friday night.) It amused me to have my photo taken in front of “New Hampshire Believes” signs when thousands of people passing by obviously believed in someone else.

Temperatures were reaching into the 80s when we crowded into the large open area at the center of the historical village normally open for public tours. Volunteers distributed water and campaign signs as the crowd swelled. But everyone was smiling and cordial – happy to be there to see history unfold. The last president to visit the colonial site, known as Strawbery Banke Museum, was George Washington.

I even saw a few Republican friends in the crowd who also didn’t want to miss this historic moment and an opportunity to see the President and Vice President of the United States. As is usual for these events, the stage was flanked by photographers, print reporters, and broadcast journalists and their cameramen. A large bank of lights shone back at the crowd, with one brighter by what seemed like a magnitude of a million -- reportedly to interfere with any assassin aiming at a dignitary at the podium.

Meanwhile, security forces and sharpshooters set up on nearby buildings and a trailer near the stage. In this photo (right), you can see the law officers, as well as a woman trying to shield her eyes from the spotlight, which I suspect ruined many a photo from the crowd.

The bright light is also why I couldn’t snap a photo of the president that didn’t look washed out. But the professionals had no such difficulties, as you can see from this group shot, below.

I first met Barack Obama in December 2006 when he came to promote “The Audacity of Hope.” During his “reading” (that’s what they called the pre-primary foray into frigid New Hampshire), I watched him nervously moving his foot back and forth behind the podium he was gripping. A year later, there were no such signs of unease as he, wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey electrified a crowd of 8,500 at the largest political rally in NH history. In between these events, I saw him at a private campaign gathering and two rallies.

I also unexpectedly encountered him during one of his campaign strolls through downtown Portsmouth in the summer of 2007 and confronted him about my inability to make contact for a story my husband and I were writing for the 22 million readers of AARP Bulletin. At one point, he put his arm around my neck and turned me toward the cameras chronicling his every step. It felt like a headlock. But a week later, he telephoned me as promised and we talked for five minutes about caring for older relatives.

Friday’s crowd was fired up by all of the speakers, who were eloquent and inspiring as they urged us to work for them and assure them a victory in New Hampshire -- and nationwide. I left with the feeling that no matter which candidate you support, there is much at stake in this election that will determine America’s future. My hope is that all of us will make our choice in November based not on bitter partisanship and political rhetoric – and promises that the facts already show cannot be kept -- but on the character and vision of the man we believe is the best one to lead our country for the next four years.

That’s the best way for all of us to be part of the political universe.

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