A crowd left roasting without air conditioning in a steamy athletic field house awaited Michelle Obama’s arrival Thursday. Her mission was to move supporters from hot and sticky to fired up and ready to fight for President Obama’s reelection in a small but potentially crucial state.
In Massachusetts — a Democratic stronghold expected to give Obama a comfortable win — the campaign comes looking for cash. This past week, Governor Deval Patrick planned to host a $20,000-a-head fundraiser for Michelle Obama at his home in western Massachusetts.
But in New Hampshire, inspiring Obama foot soldiers remains a big part of the agenda. Thursday’s event at Southern New Hampshire University was part of the first lady’s “It Takes One” program. Playing the role of first cheerleader, Michelle Obama is charged with rekindling passion in key states that propelled her husband to victory four years ago.
New Hampshire’s four electoral votes give a presidential candidate some running room in the overall electoral vote tally and a positive story before West Coast polls close. In 2008, Barack Obama won the Granite State by 9 points over John McCain. But in 2012, New Hampshire is considered a battleground. Polls show a tight race between the president and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who owns a home in Wolfeboro. Both sides are running attack ads.
The Obama campaign put an early focus on grassroots organization, and was up and running in New Hampshire as Romney nailed his Granite State primary victory. Today, Team Obama has 14 offices across New Hampshire. The campaign planned a major door-knocking effort this weekend, to tie into Obama’s birthday.
What Obama’s New Hampshire campaign has less of in 2012 is something that has proved invaluable in the past: experienced help from Massachusetts.
The Bay State’s best operatives and volunteers have a history of pouring over the border for Democratic candidates. In 2004, they helped John Kerry eke out a 1 point New Hampshire win in the presidential contest he ultimately lost to George W. Bush. The 2008 primary showdown between Obama and Hillary Clinton attracted hordes of Massachusetts volunteers. They combined forces for the general election battle against McCain.
But in this election cycle, Massachusetts Democrats are otherwise engaged. Most are fixated on the nationally watched contest between Elizabeth Warren and Republican Senator Scott Brown, which is likely to be close.
John Walsh, the Massachusetts state Democratic party chairman, said he and fellow Democrats are not ignoring New Hampshire. Patrick, a key Obama surrogate, has been there several times. Walsh canvassed in Hampton last weekend with other Bay State Democrats, his third trip north since February. But, said Walsh, “The truth is the overwhelming focus is on the Senate race in Massachusetts for most of us.” If Massachusetts didn’t have such a high-stakes race of its own, “there might be more of a regular effort to send a lot of folks up,” he added.
That makes revving up the people who are there even more of a priority.
So there was Michelle Obama, first in Laconia and then in Manchester. Speaking with a fervor the president sometimes lacks, she thanked the volunteers and organizers “for everything you do, day in and day out, to make this campaign possible.” She spoke about the “values we believe in” and the choice this election represents. “We cannot turn back now. Not now,” she said. Then she asked them: “Are you in?”
Before Mrs. Obama arrived, 21-year-old Max Ward said he was in.
Participating as an Obama volunteer in his first presidential election, the Wesleyan College student said he has been knocking on doors in Portsmouth and getting used to the range of responses. “Some are unwilling to be persuaded,” he said. “A lot are fired up. Some are undecided.”
Asked his reaction after Mrs. Obama spoke, Christopher Flood, 64, of Manchester, said, “She’s a great person. She’s here to represent a great man and a great American.”
He said her remarks made him realize, “This election is up to us. If we stick together, he will win.” While he has never before worked as a campaign volunteer, Flood said, “I’m thinking about it for the first time in my life. . . I realize what’s at stake.”
For Obama to win the state, more New Hampshire voters will have to do more than think about it. And New Hampshire Democrats will have to fight the battle on their own.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.