The New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention was expected to draw 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 many party officials describe as still fluid.
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 seeking to build a coalition that would include 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 progressive coalitions Warren and Sanders are seeking to engage.
On the ground, Sanders’ supporters challenged the notion that Biden is the only candidate well-positioned to take on 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 later in the afternoon, 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 to thunderous applause. “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%.”
Biden also has talked about leading beyond just defeating Trump, but there is no doubt the central message of his campaign is rooted in beating him. Still, his campaign last week sought to downplay expectations in New Hampshire, noting the “home-field advantage” that Democrats from neighboring states have historically enjoyed.
“There’s that sense of, we know who Joe is and we trust him,” said former state Sen. Sylvia Larsen, the former New Hampshire 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?’”
In a sign of organizational strength, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was one 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. The reality is, my measure of the outcome of our work and the success of our work is based on what we’re seeing, what we just saw out there in this convention center, and what I see when I am going to each one of these events” in New Hampshire.
Sen. Cory Booker, too, found himself brushing off his standing in the polls when speaking to reporters after giving an energetic speech that connected in the room. His candidacy has been something of a mystery to veteran New Hampshire activists who note his extensive on-the-ground campaign organization, endorsements and ability to deliver a fiery speech — yet his poll numbers remain stagnant.
“Cory Booker has gained some really good supporters, but I don’t see his poll numbers picking up in a way that suggests he’s resonating,” Larsen said.
Certainly, the convention is an imperfect test of the state of the New Hampshire primary. While it offers a window into the mood of the most plugged-in activists, it is not necessarily representative of the entire electorate that will turn out on Primary Day — and it also drew many attendees from out of state, from places including Massachusetts, New Jersey and even, in at least one case, California.
Still, New Hampshire voters are 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 Saturday morning.
“Anyone who walked in undecided are likely still undecided,” said state Rep. Kris Schultz, a prominent progressive leader here. “I have been waving signs for all the candidates, as have most people on the floor. Lots of people remain undecided.”
But, she said before speeches from Warren and Sanders, “As of now, Booker has given the best speech. He is amazing. He is still on my list.”
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 her “gumption” and 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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