PORTSMOUTH — A smiling Barack Obama surprised people spending lunchtime downtown on Saturday as he walked to the Portsmouth Brewery from his local campaign headquarters on Fleet Street.
The Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful shook many hands as he made his way up Congress Street with an entourage of campaign staffers and Secret Service agents, asking each person's name, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Peter Mitchell, 23, of Portsmouth, had to explain to his friends who Obama is, but the senator's message already was familiar to Mitchell, thanks to the Internet.
"I think he is the next great thing to pick up this country," Mitchell said, adding that he liked Obama's views on fixing the federal budget and health care.
"This is so awesome," Mitchell said as he was led to shake the candidate's hand.
Obama was in town to fire up volunteers undergoing training before an afternoon of canvassing.
About 50 people ranging from high school students to retirees crammed into the small office space, plastered with "Obama '08" posters, learning how to correctly fill out canvassing sheets and getting advice from Obama, who started his career in community organizing in Chicago.
"Sometimes it could be a little discouraging, but sometimes people would be excited, almost as if they had been waiting for me to show up," Obama said to cheers and laughter from the group.
He said the entire campaign is about going out and talking to people at a grassroots level.
"Even if you don't get (someone) signed up, you have helped spark ideas in their mind and listened to them," Obama said. "You guys are our eyes and ears."
Obama said volunteers also have an opportunity to correct misinformation people may have.
In regards to the war in Iraq, Obama said troops would be needed to protect a United States embassy and for civilian and humanitarian reasons, but he hopes to get combat troops out.
At Wednesday night's Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, front-runners Obama, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina all conceded that they couldn't guarantee a full troop withdrawal by the end of the next presidential term.
Obama said this didn't imply he was not going to work to withdraw troops immediately upon entering office.
He left most of the political commentary in Concord, where at a rally earlier in the day he spoke about bringing an open and transparent approach to major challenges like health care reform. In Portsmouth, he focused on meeting voters.
"As you know, Iowa and New Hampshire are more important than ever," he told volunteers.
"Fire it up! Ready to Go," the group cheered as Obama exited the campaign office.
Once at the Portsmouth Brewery, he poured a pint of Smuttynose's Old Brown Dog for a customer before enjoying a hamburger, french fries and a glass of ice water as he chatted with supporters.
On the way out, general manager Brennen Rumble gave Obama a T-shirt that read "Make Beer Not Bombs," which the senator said he liked.
Morgan Crowley, a 16-year old student at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, said she was drawn to Obama because she feels he's really paying attention to her generation.
Ashlee Peek, a 15-year old sophomore at Spaulding High School in Rochester, got teary-eyed as he spoke and was overjoyed to receive a hug from him.
"I find him very inspiring," Peek said. "I love his speeches and ideas on how to try and make this a better country."
She said she thinks it is important for students her age to know about and be involved in the political process and is working to encourage her peers to volunteer.
Obama encouraged supporters not to lose heart and to have fun.
"We are the underdogs, so we have to work harder, but it makes it more fun," Obama said.
Earlier in Concord, Obama said his public service experience trumps Clinton's. He said his background as a community organizer, lawyer, professor and state senator is more valuable than Clinton's experience "working the system" as first lady and in other roles.
Obama quoted comments Bill Clinton made in a 1992 debate with the first President Bush to make his point.
"The same old experience is not relevant. ... And you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience," Clinton said at the time.
"He's exactly right," Obama said at the rally. "What we need to do is put an end to the wrong kind of experience."
He cited his success in helping enact campaign finance reform as an Illinois legislator and an ethics overhaul while in the U.S. Senate. He said the nation does not need "the kind of experience that tinkers around the edges instead of doing something fundamental about how lobbyists operate in Washington."