HANOVER — Presidential hopeful Barack Obama opted for a small, intimate campaign event Monday — and was warned by a friendly voter to avoid public spats with his Democratic rivals.
Obama spoke to eight voters — and three times as many newspeople — invited to a New Hampshire restaurant.
"We've been blessed to have some terrific crowds at these town hall meetings, but most of the time I'm doing most of the talking and not doing enough listening," he said.
The Illinois senator sounded a familiar theme, that he is an outsider to Washington and to politics as usual.
But Maggie North of Claremont told him he risks becoming part of the usual political scene if he keeps being drawn into well-publicized disputes with rivals. He and chief rival Hillary Rodham Clinton have jabbed at each other over foreign policy, the war on terrorism and the use of nuclear weapons.
"You can be it," she said. "But you've got to stop — excuse me for being blunt — you've got to stop getting involved in the way people are fighting each other, chewing you up a little more."
"That's what you do when you run for president," Obama responded, getting a laugh.
North, who is considering an Obama endorsement and was a Dean supporter in 2004, praised Obama as someone fresh. She said her friends — even those who are not political — are paying attention to Obama as the antithesis of everything they loathe. But she said she worried Obama was hurting himself.
Obama said infighting among the candidates is part of the process.
"Some of that's OK, it thickens your skin. ... Putting you through the paces like that is part of the hazing that's required for the job," he said.
North wasn't persuaded.
"What happens when you engage in that is you become like everybody else," she said.
Obama repeated his criticism of lobbyists, calling them the enemy and saying their donations are corrupt.
"If they're spending a billion dollars on lobbying over 10 years — they're averaging $100 million a year — that carries weight in Washington. The congressmen will deny it, but they're not spending it just to provide good information," he said.
While Obama doesn't accept money directly from federal lobbyists, he is not above benefiting from the broader lobbying community. He accepts money from firms that have lobbying operations and has tapped the networks of lobbyists' friends and co-workers. Obama, a former state senator from Illinois, has long accepted money from state lobbyists. One of them, Concord lobbyist Jim Demers, attended an Obama event in Keene later and is a top adviser to the campaign.
At that 350-person rally, Obama returned to those themes.
"Don't let people tell you we can't solve our problems. Cynicism is our enemy. Don't let them convince you that it's too far gone, that Washington is too corrupt," Obama said to cheers. "Listen, there are problems in Washington but there are not problems we can't fix as citizens of the United States."
No one is immune, though.
"But let's face it, people are frustrated not just with Republicans, not just George Bush. They're frustrated with the whole way we do business in Washington," Obama said.
He told voters he understood their frustration with politics, the unpopular war in Iraq and a gap in the economy.
"We're not on our own, we're in this thing together. This idea of community is what's strengthened us. It's what's helped create America," he said. "It's got to express itself through our government."
But government, he said, is the sole answer.
"The American people don't want a free lunch. They don't expect the government to solve all their problems. ... Americans don't want that much. They're willing to work for it."
A Republican National Committee spokeswoman said Obama's characterization of the presidential campaign shows he's unfit to lead.
"Unfortunately for Barack Obama, this campaign is not a fraternity hazing ritual, and Americans are not going to elect a rookie politician who has ditched his 'politics of hope' mantra and gone on the attack now that he's dropping in the polls," Amber Wilkerson said.