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How to Assure an SRO Event? Shrink the Gym.

Behind the scenes at the Merrimack Valley High School gym. (Getty Images).

By Alec McGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- A New Hampshire voter arriving to see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday morning at a local high school might well have assumed that the event was overwhelmed by a stunningly high turnout, an impression that the candidate herself did her best to encourage.

Lines stretched out the Merrimack Valley High School gym door, prompting the fire marshal to grow concerned about finding room for everyone. Clinton took charge of the situation, pointing out free seats, asking her daughter, Chelsea, to clear a security barrier to create more room, and sparking a wave of applause as she offered to a mother and young child two seats that had been set aside for Chelsea and the president of the New Hampshire Senate. "We can always sit on the floor, too, if we need to," she said, and jokingly noted that the moment was an example of her problem-solving abilities: "Big challenges, real solutions." The campaign later sent around a posting from a blogger reporting that 1,500 residents had turned out, far more than the 500 who had RSVP'ed.

But the impression of overcrowding was misleading. Concord fire department officials said later that there was room in the gym for many more people than had arrived.

The problem, they said, was Clinton's campaign had configured the space for about 300 people -- a small figure for an event in one of New Hampshire's biggest towns in the final days before the primary. More than that showed up -- about 500, said battalion chief Guy Newbery, and "that's at the high end, giving them the benefit of the doubt." So campaign officials needed to rearrange the space, moving the big flag set up behind Clinton and opening up an additional bleacher section.

"The facility can hold way more than" 300, said Newbery. "It was a planning issue. It was the setup. They had to change things at the last minute, and that jammed things up."

Crowd sizes have become a sensitive topic on the campaign trail. Barack Obama drew well over 2,000 people to a Nashua high school gym Saturday morning, with many of them having to settle for an overflow room next door. Friday, Obama packed Concord High School's gym to the rafters, with dozens of people turned away at the door by the fire marshal.

"Now that was very overcrowded," said Newbery. "It was a real headache."

By Post Editor  |  January 5, 2008; 3:54 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton  
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