Candidates make their final pitch on eve of N.H. primary

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks Monday in Manchester, N.H. AP PHOTO

  • Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, center right, greets people in the audience at the conclusion of a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Dover, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Hudson, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) Mary Altaffer

For the Concord Monitor
Published: 2/10/2020 11:13:03 PM

Bernie Sanders — on the eve of New Hampshire’s presidential primary — emphasized to his Granite State supporters what’s at stake when they head to the polls Tuesday.

“What happens here in New Hampshire is enormously important,” the populist senator from Vermont who’s making his second-straight White House run stressed Monday. “The whole country is not only looking at New Hampshire, in fact the whole world is looking at New Hampshire.”

Sanders is in the driver’s seat headed into the second contest — and first primary — in the White House race.

The independent senator — who crushed eventual nominee Hillary Clinton four years ago in the state’s Democratic presidential primary — is atop the final public opinion polls, is drawing large energetic crowds in the closing days, and he sports arguably the largest grassroots get-out-the-vote operation in the Granite State.

After getting out of Iowa’s caucuses with essentially a tie with 2020 nomination rival Pete Buttigieg, expectations are high for Sanders in a state where he shares home field advantage with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But meeting expectations is crucial for Sanders.

“New Hampshire remains Bernie’s to lose. He dominated in 2016 and his coalition seems confident again. That said, if he doesn’t win, it’s a huge hit to the Sanders path,” emphasized longtime Democratic strategist Sean Downey, a national adviser on Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey’s now defunct 2020 presidential bid and a veteran of numerous political campaigns in New Hampshire.

Sanders declared victory in Iowa — where the results dribbled in for days after a reporting debacle on caucus night — by pointing to his lead in the raw vote totals coming out of the caucus precinct sites. Buttigieg also claimed victory, spotlighting his narrow edge in the percentage of state delegates won.

Buttigieg was also stressing the importance of the primary, telling supporters in Plymouth on Monday that Tuesday will be an “historic night that will set the course for the party and the rest of the world. We are lucky and unlucky enough to be in a point of history where it will be recorded what we did.”

Buttigieg closed in on Sanders in the polls in the days after the Iowa caucuses. But one of the two tracking polls suggested that the 38-year-old former South Bend, Ind., mayor saw his numbers drop over the weekend. But that wasn’t reflected on the campaign trail, as Buttigieg drew more than 5,000 people to his events Sunday.

Lucas Meyer — president of the increasingly influential New Hampshire Young Democrats — explained that “there may be a peak in interest in him based off his performance in Iowa, but in part because he’s new to the state. I think there probably is a bit of an appeal in his freshness to the state.”

But, he continued, “whether that holds into the weekend and through primary day is anybody’s guess. A strong showing in Iowa definitely helps maintain that.”

Buttigieg, who at 38 is the youngest candidate in the field, has struggled to resonate with African-American and Latino voters. And with the White House race moving next to Nevada and South Carolina, which have much more diverse electorates, a strong finish in New Hampshire is paramount for Buttigieg.

Former Vice President Joe Biden says he’s not “writing off” New Hampshire, but it sure looks like he’s lowering expectations.

“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 Friday night’s prime-time Democratic presidential nomination debate.

Biden’s comments came hours after top aides also seemed to minimize the importance of Tuesday’s primary, 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 Sanders and Buttigieg, Biden’s essentially battling with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota 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. But University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith highlighted that the final UNH tracking poll for CNN – conducted after Biden’s lackluster fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, indicate that “Bernie Sanders is seen as the most electable candidate” to take on Republican President Donald Trump in November’s general election.

“If your candidacy is based on electability, once you don’t win elections, that electability argument dissipates very rapidly,” Smith said.

Warren’s also under the spotlight. She faced a deluge of questions the past couple of days from reporters asking how crucial a strong finish in New Hampshire is to her White House bid.

“I didn’t start by doing polls a year ago, and I still don’t do polls,” responded the senator, who famously avoids all talk of her position in the polls.

Warren, who repeatedly has avoided saying New Hampshire’s a “must-win” state, has emphasized that “the way I see this is it’s going to be a long campaign … we’ve built a campaign to go the distance.”

Later, at a campaign stop in Concord, Warren was asked about her poll position and the gravity of the situation if she doesn’t perform well in her backyard.

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.

“With a full field, the difference between third and fourth could be a few points and I’d look to strong organizing game and surrogate operations from Warren and Biden to make things interesting,” Downey noted.

Klobuchar, campaigning in Exeter on Monday, touted that “as you probably heard we’re on a bit of a surge. I woke up this morning to find out that we are third in two polls.”

One of the two final surveys — a Suffolk University tracking poll for the Boston Globe and WBZ — suggested that Klobuchar soared nine percentage points over the past two days.

But the big question is whether she can capitalize on her late tide of momentum.

“I don’t think though that Klobuchar’s going to have the organization necessary to take advantage of her debate performance and her performance in Iowa and get those people out to vote,” Smith cautioned. “She doesn’t have anywhere near the on-the-ground organization as the other top candidates.”

Granite Staters are traditionally late deciders, and the final polls illustrate the point. Nearly half of those who are currently backing a candidate suggested that they could change their minds before they vote.

“I would see, easily 15% to 20% of New Hampshire Democrats making up their mind on primary day,” Smith said.

And Downey said, “I can’t stress this enough. New Hampshire likes underdogs and will decide late. This race isn’t over.”

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