MANCHESTER, N.H. – Joe Biden says he’s not “writing off” New Hampshire – but it sure looks like the former vice president is lowering expectations in the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House.
“I took a hit in Iowa and I’m probably going to take a hit here,” Biden said in a striking moment at the top of the latest Democratic nomination debate.
Biden’s comments came hours after top aides also seemed to minimize the importance of Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, telling reporters that “the campaign has had a very clear strategy from the day we got into the race. We have articulated that we believe for us the pathway to the nomination runs in particular through Nevada, South Carolina, Super Tuesday, through states that have a more diverse electorate, where Vice President Biden has a tremendous amount of support.”
For Biden, however, at least a third-place finish here could be critical, if only to prevent an exodus of donors and the possible erosion of his so-called “firewall” of support in the looming South Carolina contest. With the race for first increasingly looking to be between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Biden is essentially battling with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and even Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for a top-three ticket out of the Granite State.
It’s a stunning predicament for the candidate who was the unrivaled front-runner and the odds-on establishment pick in the primary race for months. He’s also made electability central to his campaign pitch, and analysts say he’ll need to back it up by placing in these contests.
When asked by Fox News on Saturday if he’s writing off New Hampshire, Biden pushed back, saying: “I’m not writing off New Hampshire. I’m going to campaign like hell here in New Hampshire, as I’m going to do in Nevada, in South Carolina and beyond. Look, this is just getting going here. This is a marathon.”
But on Sunday, speaking to voters at an event in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, the candidate stressed that “I’ve viewed from the beginning that you have to take the first four as one. You’ve got two primaries and two caucuses back to back, basically.”
Biden came in a distant fourth in last Monday’s caucuses, which kicked off the presidential nominating calendar. Buttigieg and Sanders both claimed victory, though the state party awarded the former more delegates. Warren was third at 18 percent and Biden in fourth at 16 percent. The AP has yet to call a winner in the contest.
While both Biden and Warren – who hails from neighboring Massachusetts – discount that a strong finish in Tuesday’s primary is imperative, both will face the prospect of pundits predicting their 2020 obits if they finish below the top tier.
A prominent Biden supporter in New Hampshire – who asked for anonymity to speak more freely – told Fox News on Sunday that he thought that the former vice president “was a little premature” in his comments at the Friday night debate when he seemingly lowered expectations in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
The supporter emphasized that “I’m not pleased with that,” stressing that New Hampshire voters are late deciders and “make up their minds at the last moment.”
The supporter said he and other top Biden backers in New Hampshire were working for a competitive third-place finish for Biden.
While Biden and his campaign have long downplayed expectations in New Hampshire because Warren and Sanders both hail from neighboring states, Democratic strategist Chris Moyer spotlighted that “because his campaign’s argument for months has been that he’s the most electable because he’s winning in the polls, he can’t keep losing when people actually vote.”
Biden bristled Sunday when a voter asked him about exactly that scenario, jokingly calling her, when she claimed to have attended a caucus, a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” — a bizarre phrase he’s used before that might be a Western movie reference. But as contentious as Biden can be with the voters, he’s gotten much tougher on his actual rivals, releasing a scorching ad over the weekend challenging Buttigieg on experience.
Moyer – a veteran of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign who served as New Hampshire communications director for Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 White House bid – noted that while the Biden campaign looks to the friendlier diverse electorates in Nevada and South Carolina, “a weaker-than-expected showing for Biden in New Hampshire raises the stakes for Nevada and makes it harder for him to rely on South Carolina as a firewall.”
“He’s already behind his competitors when it comes to raising money, and he needs to bring in significantly more resources over the next month in order to have an advertising presence in Super Tuesday’s expensive media markets,” he warned.
Warren, meanwhile, has long said that New Hampshire’s important for her bid to win the White House – but has repeatedly avoided saying it’s a “must-win” state.
“Look, the way I see this is it’s going to be a long campaign,” she emphasized Sunday in an interview on ABC’s ‘This Week.’ “We’ve built a campaign to go the distance.”
Later, at a campaign stop in capital city Concord, Warren was asked about her poll position and the gravity of the situation if she doesn’t perform well in her backyard.
“I didn’t start by doing polls a year ago, and I still don’t do polls,” said the senator, who famously avoids all talk of her position in the polls.
Warren’s assembled an all-star organization in New Hampshire, which she’s hoping will deliver on primary day. But she also had one of the best ground games in Iowa. Now, a week later and closer to home, the stakes are much higher.
“Senator Warren has always needed a strong showing in her neighboring state, but Sanders and especially Buttigieg need to finish top two in order to build up enough of a head of steam for when the electorate expands beyond mostly white, college-educated voters,” Moyer noted. “If Warren is closely bunched in with the top three, then she can claim success and move on to more diverse states where she has the potential to be one of the most appealing candidates.”
Fox News’ Tara Prindiville and Madeleine Rivera contributed to this report.