As Democratic race hits New Hampshire, it's Bernie Sanders who holds the cards

As Democratic race hits New Hampshire, it's Bernie Sanders who holds the cards
Bernie Sanders, who is favored to win next week's Democratic primary in New Hampshire, speaks to supporters in Concord, the state capital. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

As Bernie Sanders rolled into New Hampshire on Tuesday, he found himself playing a role that is new to his campaign: that of the juggernaut.

The opportunity to take up the part may be fleeting for Sanders, the democratic socialist, independent senator from Vermont and Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Once he moves past New Hampshire, the primary race gets a lot more complicated for him. But for now, he seems to be delighting in the worries of the Clinton campaign — wounded after a closer-than-expected win in Iowa's caucuses Monday night — as he shores up support here, where most polls show him leading, some quite comfortably.


Sanders is holding the cards in the race this week, and he is using them.

On the stage of a nearly century-old theater that anchors this quaint downtown where the scenery calls to mind the small Iowa cities Sanders got to know well — but the accents are decidedly different — the Vermonter exuded confidence.

In front of a massive gaggle of press, he mocked Clinton's sudden eagerness to schedule an additional presidential debate in New Hampshire before its Feb. 9 primary — but he said he'd go along, if only she would agree to later matchups in California and New York. (After all, he said, why wouldn't she?)

As Clinton's campaign struggled to make the case that it won an indisputable victory in Iowa, Sanders patiently pointed out that the race was so close that some deciding delegates appear to have been awarded by coin toss. And Clinton's renewed pronouncement that she is, like him, a progressive? Sanders shrugged. Sure, he said, on some days. And then there are the others, he said, when she calls herself a "proud moderate."

He also suggested that all the talk from the Clinton campaign that he has an unfair advantage in New Hampshire, a state that has long favored fellow northern New Englanders who run for president, is silly. As he pointed out, Clinton is the one on the ballot who has actually run for president in this state before — and she won.

But Clinton was an underdog in that primary election against Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, and on this unseasonably warm day in Keene, Sanders made clear he has no intention of giving her any space to regain ground like she did then. Sanders had some pointed words to share with an enthusiastic mix of old-timer locals, idealistic students and professionals who took the afternoon off to hear him and join in on "Feel the Bern" chants.

"Last night in Iowa, we took on the most powerful political organization in this country," Sanders said. "We came back from a 50-point deficit in the polls."

He avoided mentioning Clinton by name in his address to a packed downtown theater, but made sharp jabs, putting Clinton on notice that he is going to aggressively protect the gains he has made here.

He quickly took aim at Wall Street speaking fees — the acceptance of which have become one of Clinton's major vulnerabilities with Democrats — and delivered a broadside on the family that runs Wal-Mart, whose board of directors once included Clinton.

"Wal-Mart is the largest private-sector employer in America, yet many of their employees are forced to go on food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing you pay for through your taxes because the Walton family refuses to pay their workers a living wage," Sanders said.

"Let's be clear: The major welfare abuser in America is the wealthiest family in America."

For her part, Clinton worked through the day to avoid giving the appearance that she is playing catch-up here. At her morning campaign stop in a gymnasium, she confidently declared herself the winner in Iowa. She spoke as if the momentum were on her side, even as polls suggest otherwise. Somewhat conversely, she expressed confidence that New Hampshire voters would come to their senses.


"One of the things I love about New Hampshire voters is you sift through it, you give it the once-over, you make up your minds about what makes sense," she said. "You take a hard look about what people are proposing. You ask yourselves: Does this just sound good on paper or can this get done, and who's most likely to be able to deliver what you need?"

Her argument is an implicit rebuke of Sanders' pitch as uncompromisingly liberal. Clinton pitches herself as the candidate most likely to effect change, even if it's incremental.

As she did in the days leading into the Iowa caucuses, Clinton portrayed herself as best-suited to preserve the legacy of President Obama, who is popular with primary voters. She raised doubts about Sanders' commitment to doing the same.

"There are those who said, 'Oh, he should have done more, he should have gone harder, he should gone farther,'" she said.

"I watched it up close. I was in that Cabinet. I watched him save the auto industry and the millions of jobs that went with it. I watched him push through the toughest regulations on Wall Street since the 1930s. And I watched him achieve the Affordable Care Act to make sure that Americans have access to quality affordable care."

While Clinton is positioned to do well in the primaries that follow New Hampshire regardless of what voters here decide, her path to the nomination is a lot simpler if she can eke out a win. A victory would undercut Sanders' ability to launch a state-by-state trench battle for delegates as she did against Obama eight years ago.

Showing only hints of fatigue after a red-eye flight from Iowa, Clinton bounded onstage in Nashua and immediately did what she had been unable to do publicly the night before: declare she had won Iowa.

"I've won and I've lost there, and it's a lot better to win," she said.

Halper reported from Keene and Memoli from Nashua.