How Obama Won a N.H. Legislator's Support
CONCORD, N.H. -- If Barack Obama was dragging at all as he headed into his final of four weekend appearances with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday night, he got an extra bounce just before he took the stage. It was in the bowels of the Verizon Center in Manchester, N.H., just moments before Obama joined Oprah and his wife before a crowd of 8,000, that Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a first-year congresswoman from New Hampshire, told Obama that after months of indicating she would stay neutral in the state's presidential primary, she had decided to go ahead and endorse him.
"He had no idea when he came to the arena. I kept it quiet from everyone," Shea-Porter said in an interview Tuesday. "I told him I believed that he'd bring people out and bring the change we want."
The endorsement carried more of a jolt than one would normally expect from a rookie congresswoman, and caused some disquiet among Clinton campaign officials here who'd been led to believe that Shea-Porter was going to stay on the sidelines. Shea-Porter, a social worker by profession, won a following among liberal New Hampshire Democrats with her out-of-nowhere victory last year on an antiwar, grassroots platform over the far-better funded incumbent in the state's eastern congressional district, helping throw both of the state's seats into Democratic hands and providing perhaps the most unexpected of the party's many pickups across the country.
Since arriving in Washington, Shea-Porter has hardly dulled her liberal fervor, which had previously included being booted from a President Bush event in Portsmouth for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt. Among her causes are a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, single-payer health care in the form of "Medicare for all," and the elimination of the income cap for Social Security taxes.
The other state's other new congressman, Rep. Paul Hodes, endorsed Obama last summer, setting up, with Shea-Porter's nod, an interesting dynamic within New Hampshire Democratic circles. While Clinton has the support of many of the state's political veterans, including the president of the state Senate, Speaker of the House and a plurality of of state legislators, Obama now has in his camp the two newest -- and highest-level -- Democrats on the state scene.
The Shea-Porter move may well increase pressure from the Clinton campaign on Gov. John Lynch and former governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is running for Senate next year. While their spouses are backing Clinton -- influential political power broker Billy Shaheen is the co-chairman of Clinton's campaign here -- Lynch and Shaheen have said they will remain neutral.
The Clinton campaign apparently did not let Shea-Porter go to Obama without a fight. Shea-Porter, whose own campaign last year was chaired by Billy Shaheen, said she was in communication with top Clinton campaign officials between the time she gave Obama the word Sunday evening and the official announcement Tuesday.
"I did speak to people inside the [Clinton] campaign," Shea-Porter said. "Obviously, there's outreach there." She declined to specify the level on the Clinton side from which the calls came, saying only that President Clinton, who has been known to call to try to head off key endorsements, "did not try to call me as far as I know."
Mary Rauh, a co-chair for Obama's New Hampshire campaign, cheered the endorsement, saying it carried more weight for Shea-Porter's unconventional background. "She's just an anomaly. She's very New Hampshirish in a lot of ways, hardworking, very close to the people," Rauh said. "She's quite a unique legislator."
The endorsement represented something of a setback for the John Edwards campaign in New Hampshire, given that Shea-Porter shares many of Edwards' liberal positions, as well as his strong ties in online activist circles. Jon Bresler, a local Democratic activist backing Edwards, said that while the endorsement came quite late in the game, he expected it might sway some of Shea-Porter's strongest supporters. "They would walk through water for her," he said. "If any of those folks were undecided it would give them a strong signal."
The news sparked a brief skirmish on Blue Hampshire, a blog for New Hampshire Democrats, about whether Shea-Porter had been influenced by campaign contributions from Obama's political action committee. But this speculation was shot down by Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the state party and co-chair of the Clinton campaign in the state. "Anyone who knows [Shea-Porter] knows that is a boatload of hooey. I know there are only four weeks to go to the election, but that is not an excuse for attacking" her, wrote Sullivan. "You aren't helping Hillary when you attack [Shea-Porter] ...I am co-chair of the Hillary Clinton campaign here in New Hampshire, and no, attacking [Shea-Porter] like this is not acceptable to the campaign or to me... If you want to do tough issues comparison on Obama or other candidates, have at it, but this is baloney."
There was also speculation in New Hampshire Democratic circles that Shea-Porter may have decided to throw in with Obama for broader reasons of self-interest: a belief that she would fare better in her reelection bid next fall with Obama at the top of the ticket. The New Hampshire GOP is gunning to get her seat back next year (with Bradley preparing for a rematch), arguing that the district is out of step with a congresswoman who, among other things, had her Dover, N.H., office serve hot apple cider to antiwar protesters.
Shea-Porter said in the interview that she decided to endorse after all partly out of a sense that she and Obama shared a similar approach to politics. "There's a kinship there," she said. "It's the idea that all the people matter and that the answer comes from getting people involved in the process. He's been so good at engaging people and getting them to realize that they can get engaged for their own destiny. This is bigger than any policies. It's getting us to restore our confidence as a nation, and he's the one to do that."
Obama was equally effusive in his introduction of Shea-Porter in the arena crowd on Sunday night, which is not surprising in hindsight knowing that he got the word from her just minutes before. "This woman is doing the right thing each and every day, every step of the way," he said.
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