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Obama heightens presidential prospects with first trip to N.H.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) Illinois Sen. Barack Obama drew large crowds curious about his presidential prospects during his first trip to the pivotal campaign state of New Hampshire while he decides whether to enter the Democratic race.

Several hundred New Hampshire voters turned out to hear Obama speak at a signing for his best-selling book, ``Audacity of Hope,'' where he didn't mention the presidential race but spoke about a new political spirit to unite Americans and solve their problems.

New Hampshire's first in the nation primary is over a year away and Obama hasn't even said whether or not he will join the Democratic field vying for the nomination. But he's already igniting excitement with his exploratory trip.

After the book signing, the senator was headed to speak at a $25-per-person fundraiser for the state Democratic Party in Manchester. All 1,500 tickets quickly sold out and 150 members of the media signed up to cover the event.

Obama also had coffee with the mayor of Portsmouth and planned to greet donors who paid $150 for the party fundraiser at a private reception. He also planned to speak to reporters at a news conference.

The freshman senator said at the book event that the government should be able to help make sure all Americans have basic health insurance, alternative sources of energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil and a diplomatic power that matches its military might.

He said American slaves, immigrants, women and workers have been able to change the country, and the current generation needs to recover that spirit.

``Certainly our politics is not expressing it,'' Obama said. ``What we've come to be consumed by is 24-hour, slash and burn, negative ad, bickering, small-minded politics.''

He said he saw an awaking of American voters in last month's midterm election, and played to the seriousness that New Hampshire voters take with their responsibility as the nation's first presidential primary state. ``I know that doesn't apply in New Hampshire, where voters are always paying attention,'' he said, drawing a laugh from the standing room only crowd.

Because of their pivotal role, New Hampshire voters are accustomed to one-on-one 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 a plane to Chicago late Sunday night so he could stay as long as he needed to after his speech before the party to greet attendees.

Although he's only in his first term in the Senate, supporters have been encouraging Obama to try to become the first black president. If he runs, he would face front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and several other more experienced political hands who have been campaigning for more than a year in the state.

``I was on a different internal clock,'' Obama said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Friday. ``It's only been in the last couple of months that the amount of interest in a potential candidacy reached the point where I had to consider seriously.''
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