The New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention drew 19 of the presidential candidates and some of the state’s most committed party activists — including more than 1,200 delegates — to its gathering here Saturday, offering an early test of campaign organization and enthusiasm in a contest that is traditionally a must-win for candidates from neighboring states.
This cycle, that includes Sanders of Vermont, who won New Hampshire by a wide margin in 2016, and Warren of Massachusetts, whose ground game is often regarded as the most extensive in a contest that party officials describe as still fluid — though Warren received the most enthusiastic reception of the day, with an opening standing ovation that stretched on for nearly 2 minutes.
Her supporters wielded inflatable noise makers and she received thunderous applause throughout her address.
“There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared.”
It’s a version of a line that Warren has deployed before, though it took on new significance when she deployed it Saturday, days before she faces off against Biden for the first time on the debate stage.
While many voters feel warmly toward Biden, some have also cited the perception that he is the most electable candidate in the race, rather than displaying outright enthusiasm for his campaign.
“There’s that sense of, we know who Joe is and we trust him,” said Sylvia Larsen, the former state Senate president. “There’s still a little bit of people still looking around to say, ‘Well, OK, so what else is out there? Where are the voices? Who else might be a voice?’”
Biden, the former vice president, was the first of the presidential contenders to speak, and he received a polite though hardly raucous reception as attendees trickled into the arena, which was not yet full Saturday morning.
Taking aim at President Donald Trump, he said: “We cannot and I will not let this man be reelected.” The audience cheered, driven in part by a contingent of representatives from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Biden has led in most polls here since entering the race — though the surveys have been relatively few. He is focused on blue-collar voters, moderates and other Democrats who believe his more centrist brand offers the most promising path to defeating Trump, in contrast to the more liberal coalitions Warren and Sanders are working to build.
On the ground, Sanders’ supporters challenged the notion that Biden is the only candidate well-positioned to defeat Trump.
“Bernie beats Trump,” read one banner hanging in the arena. Outside, another banner affixed to a pro-Sanders tent read, “In poll after poll after poll...Bernie BEATS Trump.”
Sanders received frequent applause throughout his speech, and his supporters — who appeared dispersed throughout the arena — greeted many of his remarks with loud whoops.
“Together, we will make Donald Trump a one-term president,” he said. “But frankly, frankly, it is not enough just to defeat Trump. We must do much, much more. We must finally create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%.”
In a sign of organizational strength, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was also a prominent presence at the convention: He had a large cheering contingent that punctuated his address with rounds of applause. Flush with a field-leading fundraising haul, his campaign has significantly expanded its presence in New Hampshire and has announced the opening of 12 new offices in the state.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California had a visible support section, too — her fans wore bright yellow T-shirts — and she also received applause and cheers.
Yet Harris’ standing in the polls has slipped over the summer, and party leaders here say she does not have the same footprint in the state as some of the other contenders. Perhaps reflecting those dynamics — and a lunchtime-hour speaking slot — her ability to excite the room was at times uneven.
“Everybody else and the pundits can ride polls; I’m not on that roller coaster,” she told reporters after her speech. “I am working hard, we are steady, I don’t get high with the polls, I don’t go low with the polls.”
Sen. Cory Booker, too, found himself brushing off the polls when speaking to reporters after giving an energetic speech that resonated in the room. His candidacy has mystified some veteran New Hampshire Democrats who note his relatively stagnant poll numbers despite an extensive on-the-ground campaign organization, endorsements and an ability to deliver a fiery speech.
Certainly, the convention is an imperfect test of the state of the New Hampshire primary. It is a window into the mood of the most plugged-in activists, but is not necessarily representative of the entire electorate that will turn out on primary day — and it also drew attendees from out of state, from places including Massachusetts, New Jersey and even, in at least one case, California.
New Hampshire voters are also discerning, relishing their responsibilities as voters in the nation’s first primary contest, following the Iowa caucuses. Given the huge cast of candidates, many voters were in no mood to commit this early.
“I think of it like getting an ice cream sundae and trying to decide what toppings you want to put on your ice cream, because they’re very good choices, but I just can’t make up my mind,” said Jeanne Brown from Goffstown, who attended a Warren event in Bow over the summer. “You know, I don’t know if I want the gummy bears or the sprinkles.”
That same indecision was on display inside and outside the arena. “I have been waving signs for all the candidates, as have most people on the floor,” said state Rep. Kris Schultz, a prominent progressive leader here who said Saturday afternoon that her top choices include Warren, Sanders and Booker. “Lots of people remain undecided.”
Prior to the event, activists and other voters rattled off lists of top three choices, but repeatedly stressed that their rankings could change. For at least one voter, they changed in a matter of moments.
“Pete, Warren and then Biden,” said Tim Ashe of Somersworth, referencing Buttigieg. “That may change.”
When asked why Buttigieg was his first choice, he replied, “I was looking at a Pete sign when I said it.”
He went on to say that “if I had to vote today, it would probably be for Warren,” pointing to his belief that she is “truly looking out for the little guy.”
His wife, Laurie Ashe, said she had supported John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, in the primary in 2016 and then voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Now, she said, she is supporting Warren because “regular people cannot work their way into the middle class anymore.”
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