CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Sen. Barack Obama had a good first date in New Hampshire this week – he was a little late, but wore a nice suit, had interesting things to say and used a little flattery.

The state’s Democrats say the Illinois senator still has got some courting to do. He’ll have to get in line with the rest of the Democrats vying for attention.

Voters in the nation’s first presidential primary state are a demanding lot. And while party activists were clearly excited about Obama’s speeches in his first visit to New Hampshire Sunday, they made it clear he’ll have to keep coming back for more intimate chats if he wants their support.

“New Hampshire people,” explained Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, “they expect candidates to come to the living rooms and the kitchens, meet with them in small groups and have discussions on the issues.”

The Illinois senator, who said he hasn’t even decided whether to run for president, distinguished himself as much for how he spoke as for what he said. He didn’t offer rousing applause lines or deliver a lot of partisan red meat to rile up his Democratic audience, but spoke about uniting the country with hope.

He quoted President Kennedy and his preacher, but didn’t read from notes and many remarked that he sounded unrehearsed. “He had a living-room delivery in a rally setting,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party spokeswoman Kathleen Strand.

His delivery was a departure from those who came out on top in New Hampshire last time – the bellowing Howard Dean and the senatorial John Kerry. Both railed against President Bush. It was also very different from other black candidates who have run for president – Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who are ordained ministers and often sound like they are speaking from the pulpit.

Obama, a Hawaii native, “was not born of a Southern Baptist, civil-rights speaking style,” said Vincent Hutchings, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies. “It’s a subtle indication that he’s not cut from the same cloth as Jesse Jackson.”

His audiences were rapt, despite his low-key delivery. Those in attendance compared him to everyone from Kennedy to Bono, clearly over any annoyance they stood waiting for an hour for the speaking program to start as the large crowd filed in.

“He has the sincerity in his voice that is admirable and very appealing to people,” said former Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., who was known for his oratory.

Obama himself recognized that the “fuss” he is creating might not be about him, but more about people’s desire for change. “I think to some degree I’ve become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in for now,” he said.

Elizabeth Ossoff, a professor of psychology at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College, said freshness does count – at least early on.

“I think people are drawn to a young, interesting face and persona that seems a little bit different from what they’ve seen before,” Ossoff said. “Seeing John Kerry or John Edwards out there – or John McCain – these are faces we’ve seen before. The novelty only lasts so long.”

Beyond his soft-spoken approach, Obama offers a compelling personal story – son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Ivy League-educated and best-selling author – that belies a thin elective resume. He went from the Illinois state legislature to the U.S. Senate just two years ago.

“His relative lack of political background, people are projecting on him whatever they want to see. The reality has not yet struck some people that he isn’t what they want to see,” Hutchings said.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that Obama benefits from being a war opponent mulling a run in an anti-war environment. But that dynamic could shift depending on the war’s direction, she said.

Much like President Ford’s popularity foundered after the nation got over Watergate, the same could happen if the country no longer maintains a fierce anti-war position, she said. “We don’t know what the situation is going to be six months from now.”

Obama talked generally about his ideals – health insurance for all Americans, alternative sources of energy and a diplomatic power that matches U.S. military might – but didn’t lay out any policy specifics. That would have to change on future visits to New Hampshire, said Ray Buckley, vice chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.

“The real test will be when he’s standing in a living room with 20 people,” Buckley said. “Not everyone is going to be a fan, and they are going to ask tough questions.

“We’ve seen a lot of people run who are celebrities and haven’t been able to adjust,” he said. Buckley and others talked about how Al Gore initially came to New Hampshire for the 2000 primary “acting like a vice president,” but he eventually changed his approach and won a close race.

Obama said he recognizes he’ll have to face rigorous questions from New Hampshire voters should he decide to run. “I certainly enjoy sitting in folks’ living rooms, hearing about what’s important to them,” he told The Associated Press before his visit.

Obama’s entry into New Hampshire also could be compared to Sen. Ted Kennedy, who got a similar reception from media and activists during a speech to the state Democratic convention in October 1978. The Washington Post reported it was “a rip-snorting keynote address” and described a Kennedy presidential fever that “spread like a contagious rash among delegates.”

Despite the early attention, Kennedy lost to President Carter in New Hampshire’s 1980 primary.

Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-12-06 1701EST

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