MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire is not accustomed to playing the role of the undercard.
But so far in the 2020 campaign, the first-in-the-nation primary state has been more of a destination for lower-tier Democratic presidential candidates than for three of its top contenders.
Democratic voters have seen former Maryland congressman John Delaney or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who recently ended her presidential run, on any given day more than former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
That changes Saturday when the 2020 field descends on Manchester for the state Democratic Party’s convention as the campaign enters a more intense phase, with several also-ran candidates needing moments that would elevate them.
“From my perspective, both Biden and Bernie are more counting on their name recognition than the retail politics that we’re known for here in New Hampshire,” said Sabina Chen, the chairwoman of the Pelham Democrats. She voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary but has not endorsed a candidate so far.
While Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts each has a core of support in the state, Biden has stirred unease among some Democratic activists mindful of the challenge that defeating President Donald Trump poses.
As Patricia Pustell, chairwoman of the Greater Ossipee Democrats, says, it’s time for “new blood and new leadership.”
“I think (Biden’s) coming back to save us and he doesn’t need to save us,” Pustell said. “We have enough people that can do this job.”
The New Hampshire primary has a history of humbling front-runners. Walter Mondale, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were each denied victory in the New Hampshire primary in the years they became the eventual Democratic nominee.
Since 1976, the year Democrat Jimmy Carter won the state’s primary, no New Hampshire Democratic primary winners have gone on to capture both the party nomination and the presidency. And since Carter, no non-incumbent Democrat who has won the New Hampshire primary once has been able to capture a repeat victory.
Longtime New Hampshire Democrats say endorsements for 2020 contenders have come slowly this cycle, in part because of the large field and lingering tensions from the fractious primary between Sanders and Clinton.
“The last time around there was so much of an argument between the Sanders campaign with the Clinton campaign, that I think a lot of people are being careful to not seem like they’ve committed too early,” said Deb Bacon Nelson, chairwoman of the Hanover/Lyme town Democrats, who endorsed Clinton in 2016.
Biden has secured the backing of establishment figures like former Gov. John Lynch. But since announcing his campaign in April, Biden has made four campaign trips to the state with sometimes-uneven results.
Harris regularly draws large crowds when she campaigns here, though as of Labor Day she has spent only six days campaigning in the state. Last month in Iowa, the California Democrat dedicated five days in August alone to a bus tour.
That has left some voters in the state forming their impression of Harris largely from her first debate performance when she criticized Biden. For voters like Anne Fenn, a retired federal government worker, that left a sour taste.
For Fenn to consider Harris, the 66-year-old said “she’s got to come here. She’s got to talk to us, she’s got to meet with people, she’s got to let people see her face to face.”
Warren has focused on New Hampshire more than any of her closest rivals in terms of days spent campaigning in the state — 15 trips and 19 days since January, her campaign says.
Sanders has found himself out-campaigned in New Hampshire by Warren, even after a Labor Day weekend campaign trip increased his total to six trips and 12 days spent in the state.
“I think there’s only one candidate in the top tier with kind of consistent momentum, and that’s Elizabeth Warren,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Another key variable is whether a candidate from the second tier can “make some noise” in the state, Scala said.
“The amount of time (New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s) spent here, the endorsements he has already, there seems like a real disparity between the resources he’s putting in and his poll numbers,” Scala said.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has also shown a focus on campaigning in the state more similar to Warren than that of Biden, Harris and Sanders. Buttigieg’s campaign recently announced it is opening 12 offices across New Hampshire’s 10 counties.
Biden has praised New Hampshire lavishly in his visits since announcing his presidential run, though his events have been marked by a series of miscues, most recently when he went off script during an event in Hanover in August by raising the question of what might have happened in America if Obama had been assassinated during his presidential campaign in 2008.
Still, he has a solid base of support.
“He is the best candidate to beat Trump,” Tom Goins, a 67-year-old voter from Walpole, said of Biden. “He’s moderate enough to appeal to the broad masses. I think some of the other candidates have great ideas, but I think they’re a little bit too polarizing.”