About 500 people huddled under tents in rain-soaked Sunapee Harbor yesterday for a chance to have some ice cream with Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Arriving about 45 minutes late to the ice cream social, the Illinois senator started his routine stump speech by talking about the enormous crowds that have gathered at similar events across the country.
"Sometimes I ask, 'Well, what's everybody doing here?' And it's tempting for me to think it's all about me, but my wife reminds me that, 'No, it's not, Barack.'" He said people come to these events because they identify him with change and a chance to "restore our ideals and recover our values."
"People are frustrated," he said, "and that's before you even get to Scooter Libby." Despite being called a "hope monger," Obama said he believes the country can reclaim a spirit of togetherness, and "When we recover that spirit, then there's no problem we can't solve."
Obama proposes a "sensible, phased redeployment" of troops in Iraq that would bring home all units by March 31, 2008. He said it's unfair that American soldiers will continue to fight while the Iraqi Parliament takes a vacation in August.
When Obama called on New Hampshire Senators John Sununu and Judd Gregg to vote for troop withdrawal, many in the crowd that overflowed from underneath the tent showed their support by booing the two Republic senators.
Obama said Americans are no safer now than when the war began. Challenged by a voter who quoted from the National Intelligence Estimate report, Obama said that although key terrorist operatives have been eliminated, terrorist groups have spread beyond Iraq and "We did not chop off the head of al-Qaida. Bin Laden is still there; al-Zawahiri is still there." "Unfortunately," he said, "Iraq has become the cause around which the terrorists have rallied."
In response to an audience question, Obama said if elected President, he would forgive the debts owed by impoverished countries to allow them to invest in education. "Look, much of the debt in some of these countries ended up in Swiss bank accounts because their governments were just terrible," he said. ". . .You can't squeeze water out of a stone."
On domestic issues, Obama said, health care would be his first priority. He said he would create a single program similar to the one offered to members of Congress and make it available to everyone. "My attitude is you should have the same high quality care," he said.
When a woman in the audience asked about his positions on abortion and gay marriage, Obama said he's pro-choice and favors civil unions, though not gay marriage. He said religious denominations, not states, should decide whether to recognize gay marriages.
On the subject of education, Obama called for increased investment in early childhood education and teachers, and said taxpayers could save $5 billion annually by eliminating the lobbyists and other middlemen in the student loan industry.
After the formal question and answer period, Obama stayed in the harbor for about an hour, answering more questions and signing autographs as voters ate ice cream and mingled.
Lisa Windsor of Sunapee said she's not concerned about Obama's relatively short political career.
"I don't care about that," Windsor said. "I don't think it's good or bad. I think it's more important if he's a good manager and knows how to surround himself with good advisors."
Anthony MacConnell, a school board member in nearby Newport, said he's strongly considering a vote for Obama, but he's waiting to hear the details of his plans.
"I wasn't really impressed with his debate performance," MacConnell said.
"He's going to have to engage and challenge (the other candidates), and I haven't seen that yet." Obama was scheduled to make campaign stops in Hampton and Manchester today.