BEDFORD, N.H. -The voters who were gathered to question Barack Obama had their hands thrust in the air hoping to be called on. Instead, the Democratic presidential candidate decided to wrap things up by addressing the unmentioned elephant in the room.
"This last question I will prompt myself, and that's, 'Why you instead of Hillary?'" Obama said during a supporter's house party this week. "That's in the back of minds of a lot of people."
That direct approach was part of a new Obama campaign style during his visit to the nation's first primary state, where he has stalled in the polls behind Hillary Rodham Clinton. He still talked about the politics of hope and the need for change, but he also was eager to address whatever concerns might be keeping voters from signing on.
_ Does he have the experience and judgment to be commander in chief after less than three years in the Senate and eight years in the Illinois Legislature? Obama argued that experience doesn't equate with great leadership, pointing out that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney had long resumes but led the country into Iraq.
_ Is he tough enough to beat Clinton in the primary and the Republicans in the general election? Obama said even though he stands for unity and the end of personal attack politics, he will swiftly and strongly defend himself from his critics.
_ Can he win a nationwide election? While some have expressed doubts about whether the country is ready for a black president, Obama argued that his race would be an asset because it would increase black voter turnout enough to give a Democratic victory in reliably Republican Southern states.
He also said young voter participation would leap. "I think I can bring cool back to the federal government," he said in Concord, the last of five events Monday.
"My biggest weakness in the general election," Obama offered, "is the same as in the primary election, which is: Hasn't been on the national stage that long. We're not sure if he's tough enough.
"Let me tell you, if I beat the Clintons, folks aren't going to ask whether I'm tough enough," he said to laughter and clapping from the crowd. But it didn't end the skepticism.
"I would agree with you that experience doesn't affect wisdom - we do know that," responded a woman who was among about 75 squeezed into a home. "But by any stretch of the imagination, it would be a leap of faith to vote for you just because of the lack of years of experience."
She asked how he would choose the staff and advisers who would help him make decisions. Obama answered that he would surround himself with competent people with integrity and independence - like Abraham Lincoln, he said. He pointed out that Lincoln also was a former Illinois legislator who faced great skepticism about his experience. "I guess that was a leap of faith, too," Obama said.
Obama has less than four months to persuade skeptical voters to make that jump. His campaign says part of the challenge is getting those who know a lot about Clinton to learn more about Obama.
In New Hampshire, the campaign has set up book clubs to read Obama's autobiographies and three-on-three basketball tournaments - the candidate's favorite sport. He is meeting personally with voters who have yet to make up their minds.
Kate Hanna, an attorney who hosted the Bedford party on her front lawn, said her instructions were to recruit the undecideds and keep the gathering intimate. She had to turn away many supporters, including her own mother.
"I think they asked me to have it at my house because they knew I would rule with an iron fist to make sure that we didn't just have a rah-rah lovefest for Barack Obama here," she said.
"I think the people that I've talked to over the last several months have some concern about the experience of Senator Obama, but that has seemed to have been allayed by their reading about his life experience and their meeting him and hearing his thoughtful answers about any number of areas of expertise," Hanna said. "It's very characteristic of Barack Obama to come back and meet it head on and discuss it and give his response to any issue that he thinks may be of concern to voters."