MANCHESTER, N.H. — Secret Service presence has increased for Sen. Barack Obama since his dramatic win in Iowa, amid fears over the safety of the man seeking to become America’s first black president.
The Illinois senator’s security now rivals that of President Bush, with a dozen Secret Service agents wearing dark suits and earpieces leading bomb-sniffing dogs through event venues, sweeping all equipment brought by journalists and flanking the candidate as he plunges into crowds of supporters.
“For many black supporters, there is a lot of anxiety that he will be killed, and it is on people’s minds,” said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University professor of political science and contemporary black culture.
“You can’t make a prediction like this — like he has ‘a 50 percent chance of getting shot.’ But the greater his visibility and the greater his access to people, there is a danger,” she said.
Another black presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, drew Secret Service protection because of violent threats during his campaigns in the 1980s. And former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ruled out a presidential run in part because his wife expressed fears he would be assassinated.
Mr. Obama, who reportedly resisted asking for Secret Service protection but personally requested a detail of agents after friends insisted, has been under federal watch since early last year. No one will say whether he has received an explicit death threat — his campaign said yesterday only that “we don’t comment on security” — but officials have tracked racist chatter on white-supremacist Web sites.
The Internet is rife with theories that someone may try to assassinate the senator — typing into Google “assassinate Obama” brings up more than 2,000 hits. Anyone from Islamist terrorists to racist Americans to operatives of Halliburton and Blackwater are speculated about, but other, more nefarious Web sites are for real, according to reports from the Associated Press.
At his first morning event yesterday, at least a dozen plainclothes Secret Service agents, most with yellow pins on their lapels, stood guard in and around the Palace Theater, and, unlike other candidates touring the state, uniformed police were also on hand. The theater was emptied early so bomb-detecting dogs could sweep through, and journalists covering the event were corralled for inspection.
“Just put all your equipment down, leave the room, and close the door,” one agent barked as another agent paced the hallway with a bomb-detection dog. Known as a “sweep” on the White House beat, the media did as told, allowing agents to rustle through their computer bags and turn on electronic equipment to make sure it was real.
Only Mrs. Clinton, who is entitled to protection as a former first lady, and Mr. Obama have Secret Service details. Mr. Obama was given Secret Service protection far earlier in the campaign than any previous candidate following worries about racist threats, federal officials said.
For instance, both Sen. John Edwards and Sen. John Kerry, two Democratic presidential candidates last election, were given Secret Service protection in February 2004, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
There were more agents in the theater yesterday, some undercover, some wearing temporary pins. Reporters who have covered the candidate for months said the increase in security was obvious.
But Secret Service agents have been blanketing the candidate for some time. At an event last month in Manchester, agents ordered people to step down from the chairs they were standing on to take photographs.
“We can’t have them that high,” one agent was heard to say. Agents surrounded the candidate as he worked a rope line, just as they do for President Bush.
While there were no metal detectors at yesterday’s event, some guests with bags were checked as they entered. And while no helicopter hovered overhead, no sharpshooters eyed the streets from building tops and no black SUV stood nearby, packed with heavily armed agents — three signs the president is in the area — agents yesterday were anxious and very low on patience.