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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Obama shows signs of trail-weariness

The Democrat makes the most of quick breaks with his family but can't seem to escape the spotlight.

July 09, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

BUTTE, MONT. — He hasn't had a vacation for months. He sees his family little more than once a week. And now as the presumed Democratic nominee for president, he can't go anywhere without being trailed by a full crew of journalists.

Reaching his limit, Barack Obama wriggled free of the campaign's fetters on July 4. Caught in Montana on his daughter Malia's 10th birthday, he improvised a party.

At the Holiday Inn Express in Butte, a city known for its copper mines and bordellos of old, Obama and family ordered a cake. They loaded an iPod with Malia's favorite songs and danced and sang. Obama later came close to tears, recalling that Malia told him "it was the best birthday she'd ever had."

"I know it sounds corny, but last night was actually one of those times where being in a Holiday Inn in Butte without a lot of fanfare. . . . I don't know whether she was just telling us what we wanted to hear, but I can tell you from my perspective it was one of the best times I've had in a long time," Obama told reporters aboard his campaign plane. Then he quickly turned and went back to his seat.

Being Barack Obama would seem an ego-enlarging thrill, with ecstatic crowds at every stop and -- if the polls are right -- a better than 50-50 shot at becoming president.

Watching him on the trail in recent days, though, it often appears as if the unrelenting attention and prolonged campaigning are getting wearisome. He told a customer at an Indiana diner two months ago that he had lost 7 or 8 pounds. He said he was learning to get by on four-to-five hours' sleep.

Since late last month, after Obama clinched the nomination, his movements have been tracked as never before. He is trailed constantly by a corps of reporters and camera crews, even when his public day of campaigning ends.

When the candidate goes to the gym, takes his wife to dinner or sets up a folding chair on an athletic field to watch his daughter play soccer, the journalists follow in case anything might happen.

Many of these are private moments, but as Obama is discovering, the Democratic presidential nominee has no private life. Any display of spontaneity or deviation from the scripted message can alter the course of his campaign.

Finishing a swing through some Western states Saturday, Obama vented about the loss of personal space that has accompanied his political rise.

"I've never been a big entourage guy," he said during a news conference as his plane flew from Montana to St. Louis. "And so one of the adjustments of being a candidate is not being able to go take a walk somewhere without having a big fuss. And that takes some getting used to."

The point was demonstrated vividly on his campaign plane a few days before, when Obama had to use the bathroom at the back of the aircraft -- the lavatory in front being temporarily unavailable. He sidled past the press corps, explaining his predicament to surprised reporters.

His rival, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is also showing signs of stress. He takes weekends off in Phoenix or at his Sedona retreat. But at times he has seemed annoyed by a press corps he once went out of his way to charm.

When a reporter recently asked whether he'd seen a doctor about his cold, he turned to an aide and said: "Can you believe this? You can't make it up."

Security is so tight around Obama these days that it has constricted his routine. Appearing in Butte for a Fourth of July parade, he watched from a reviewing stand rather than walk the parade route. Sharpshooters atop buildings peered through binoculars as the Obamas watched the floats.

The Illinois senator told the crowd he wasn't accustomed to watching parades as a spectator. Had he walked the route, the Secret Service would have been ordering people along the sidewalks to show their hands, Obama said. "And that wasn't going to be much fun for everybody," he said.

Visiting the Missouri home of former Democratic President Harry S. Truman last week, Obama sounded wistful over "Give 'em Hell Harry's" freedom to go where he pleased.

Obama was shown Truman's old hat and coat, and mused about what his life would become should he win in November. "The thing that I envy most about Truman was that when he was in the White House, he could go out and take a walk. He could put on that fedora and take a stroll without someone following him."

Obama has been campaigning virtually nonstop since a brief vacation in the Virgin Islands almost four months ago. Even then he couldn't completely escape. CNN shot footage of him reclining in a chaise longue, wearing a ball cap and talking on a cellphone. When a correspondent asked how he was, he said with a half-smile, "Just trying to be left alone."

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