Democrats struggle to narrow field as New Hampshire primary nears

Democrats’ hopes that New Hampshire voters might bring clarity to the chaotic fight for their party’s presidential nomination were fading Monday as the state’s primary election neared, with the wide swath of voters seeking a moderate candidate continuing to resist coalescing behind any one contender.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seems to be solidifying his support among voters on the party’s left, boxing out Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to multiple polls of New Hampshire voters.

At the same time, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., continued to joust for the position as the main centrist alternative to Sanders, raising the likelihood that the contest will continue long after candidates exit the state.

“This is just getting started,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview Monday on CBS’ “This Morning.”

Biden’s plunge in support in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary here has left the moderate lane wide open to other candidates, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He skipped this state, but a national poll released Monday by Quinnipiac University showed him moving into a rough tie with Biden among Democratic voters nationwide, with Sanders leading both of them.

The former vice president has sought to downplay the importance of New Hampshire and its heavily white electorate.

“Nothing is going to happen until we get to a place — and around the country — where there is much more diversity,” he said.

Later, speaking to about 100 people in a church basement in Gilford, he steered clear of criticizing his rivals, focusing instead on President Trump, whom he noted has a rally scheduled for Manchester on Monday evening.

“I can hardly wait,” he said.

Trump plans to run on the healthy economy, and he was the best candidate to counter that pitch, Biden said.

“He’s telling the American people they should accept a devil’s bargain — that it’s OK to sell the soul of this nation just to help a few very, very wealthy people,” he said.

But the bulk of the job growth in the country happened before Trump took office, Biden said.

“Guess where he got that good economy from? The Obama-Biden administration.”

Trump, in a message on Twitter, made clear that his rally plan was in part an effort to troll the opposition.

“Want to shake up the Dems a little bit — they have a really boring deal going on,” Trump wrote in a post that jibed at the Democratic candidates and their Iowa caucuses meltdown of last week. “Still waiting for the Iowa results, votes were fried.”

Trump narrowly lost this state in the 2016 general election, and his campaign has targeted it as one that potentially could be flipped in 2020 and whose four electoral votes could make the difference in a close race.

The night before his arrival, Trump’s supporters began pitching tents outside the arena where he is scheduled to speak. Their enthusiasm contrasted with the anxiety pervading Democratic ranks.

Centrist Democrats here have been bouncing among a cluster of candidates. Many have gravitated toward Buttigieg, but tracking polls suggest his momentum may have stalled over the weekend as his rivals pounded away at him, with Biden in particular questioning his experience and fitness for office.

Over the weekend, Klobuchar moved into position for a strong showing. Two tracking polls of the state’s voters have shown her edging into a possible third place behind Buttigieg and Sanders.

“We can’t be sure because tracking polls are a quick snapshot of where voters are,” said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Institute, which runs one of the surveys. “Is it a spike that will come back down, or is it a continuation?”

Five other major candidates — Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and two wealthy businessmen, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang — will also appear on the ballot, but the bulk of voter attention has focused on the top five.

At a rally Monday morning in Plymouth, a small city in central New Hampshire, Buttigieg did not mention Klobuchar, but continued his recent criticism of Sanders, saying that while “I respect his intentions,” the Vermont senator was making promises he would be unable to keep without tax increases on the middle class.

“Look at Senator Sanders’ math — $25 trillion worth of revenue” over the next 10 years, much of it in new taxes to pay for healthcare, Buttigieg said. Some of those taxes, including higher levies on the wealthiest Americans, “we can agree on,” he said.

“But here’s the problem, there’s $50 trillion worth of spending. So about half of it is unaccounted for, and there’s no explanation for where the other $25 trillion is supposed to come from.”

“Are we going to pay for it in the form of still further taxes? Or are we going to pay for it in the form of broken promises?”

An American majority exists for major, progressive change, he said, but not “if we take it all the way to the extreme.”

Sanders has said in interviews that he does not believe voters expect him to lay out a complete accounting of taxes and spending at this stage of the campaign.

Klobuchar, speaking at a Rotary Club in Nashua, in the vote-rich southern part of the state, reminded the audience that in Friday’s debate, she had been the only candidate willing to raise her hand and say that Democrats would be making a mistake to nominate a candidate who calls himself a democratic socialist.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not good friends with Bernie; I am,” she said. “I just have a different philosophy than he does and a lot of it is grounded in a respect for entrepreneurship.” The private sector requires strong regulation, she added, but “this is what has employed people, this is what brought our country to where it is.”

She did not mention Buttigieg by name, but subtly jabbed at him and Sanders as she said that the best candidates are sometimes those who are “not always the celebrity candidate, and they’re not always the brand newcomer. A lot of times they’re just someone that can get things done.”

A key to the result for both Buttigieg and Klobuchar likely will be the preferences of independent voters, who are allowed to participate in the Democratic primary here.

Non-party voters likely will make up more than 40% of the turnout in Tuesday’s election. In 2016, independents delivered the lion’s share of their votes to Sanders as he competed against Hillary Clinton, who was the choice of establishment Democrats.

Many of the state’s independent voters, however, are politically moderate. Biden has little support among them, and if they swing heavily behind either Buttigieg or Klobuchar, they could have a major impact. They also tend to be late deciders.

Like Buttigieg, Klobuchar has roots in the industrial Midwest, which the Democrats need to win back. But unlike him, Klobuchar argues, she has a track record of winning statewide elections and deal making in Congress.

She has worked feverishly to contrast herself with the former mayor, hoping to appeal to the many votes who like his message but are concerned about the 38-year-old’s lack of experience.

“I have won in rural areas, suburban areas, and every single congressional district, every single time,” Klobuchar said in an interview on MSNBC. “He does not bring those receipts.”

What Buttigieg has brought is big crowds to his events, rivaling those of Sanders, as well as a political agility and resilience that impresses many voters.

Some 5,000 people turned out to Buttigieg events across the state Sunday. His well-disciplined and well-funded campaign machine was out in force knocking on doors, enlisting voters to show up at the polls.

Warren directly addressed Democrats’ angst about the difficulty of beating Trump — and their reservations about her own electability — as she made her closing argument before a capacity crowd at the Rochester Opera House. She reflected on her successful 2012 Senate race against a popular Senate incumbent, Republican Scott Brown.

“This is about winning unwinnable fights,” she said. “People think that folks with the money are always going to win. They don’t know what they are up against. It’s the folks with persistence who are going to win.”

The fluidity of the race added urgency to the pitches of candidates as they lumbered through Monday’s wintry mix of snow and rain to reach as many voters as they could. They made their way from canvass launches in the affluent Boston suburbs on the seacoast to town halls on bucolic colleges campuses and through the economically distressed communities in the long-ago manufacturing hub of Manchester.

The frenzy of activity once again revealed why Sanders remains such a force in his neighboring state and nationwide. The 78-year-old avoids taking questions and limits his interaction with voters, sticking to talking points he has echoed for years. But his events are consistently packed. And voters who show up at them tend not to be wavering or candidate shopping. They are all in for Sanders.

They fuel a campaign infrastructure that is unmatched in New Hampshire. The campaign says its volunteers and staff knocked on 150,000 doors Saturday alone, reaching one out of every five voters in the state. Sanders campaign volunteers have visited more than 700,000 households this election cycle, the campaign says.

Sanders’ closing rally Monday night is scheduled to feature the Strokes and a progressive crowd favorite, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The audience is likely to be huge.

“We have an unprecedented grassroots movement, which is what you need to defeat Trump,” Sanders said at a rally in Manchester on Monday morning. “We have raised more campaign contributions from more people … than any candidate in the history of the United States of America.”

But any path to the nomination for Sanders still relies on expanding his support beyond the large group of Bernie die-hards. New Hampshire will test how effectively he can do that. That was a point Ocasio-Cortez emphasized as she dialed in to a call with Sanders campaign volunteers Sunday night.

“The name of the game here is electorate expansion and bringing people out to vote that the normal political establishment counts on not turning out,” she said, according to a partial transcript of the call released by the campaign.

“The political establishment counts on young people not turning out, on working class people, poor people, people working two jobs — they rely and they predict that we don’t turn out. So that when we do, we completely upend politics as usual and change the game.”

Halper reported from Rindge, Mason from Gilford and Engelmayer from Keene. Staff writers Janet Hook in Rochester and David Lauter in Manchester also contributed.

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