They came for the Bernie and Donald show. They left at least thinking about Martin and Lindsey.
“He was put in the category of, ‘This guy we’ll ignore,’” Richard Pennington of Peterborough, N.H., said of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. But after seeing him Monday at the No Labels “Problem Solver Convention,” Pennington, a Bernie Sanders voter, said he’d give O'Malley a second look.
“He doesn’t have any traction. But he’s an impressive guy,” he said.
Pennington and his wife, Patrice -- respectively a so-called undeclared voter and a registered Democrat -- were among nearly 2,000 people who attended a bipartisan political forum in the nation’s first primary state organized by No Labels, a group that’s seeking to shift the political discussion away from partisan extremes toward consensus.
The forum attracted eight presidential candidates -- three Democrats who appeared via satellite as they prepared for their first primary debate and five Republicans in person. And at least for the day, they largely tailored their pitches for the political middle.
The primary attractions were Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont, and Donald Trump, the real estate mogul from New York. They stand at distant ends of the political spectrum on many issues but have shown surprising strength with anti-establishment messages.
Sanders said his drive to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which cleared the way for unlimited contributions to political groups, was essential to creating a “vigorous, vibrant democracy where all people -- conservatives, progressives, moderates -- can get actively involved and run for office.”
“Let’s sit down and analyze what the most important problems are that we face as a country and figure out together how we go forward,” Sanders said. “Yeah, there are going to be big disagreements. Let’s treat each other civilly. Let’s treat each other respectfully. And let’s not try to demonize people who may have disagreements with us.”
Trump used his remarks to tell a lengthy story about how he remedied a long-stalled project in New York to rehabilitate a public ice rink.
“I did it in four months, this is after eight years,” Trump said. “I did it for $1.8 million. The city had spent over $20 million. … That's what happens, and you can do that with this country.”
Speaking with reporters earlier, he praised Sanders for his opposition to trade pacts, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“He knows we're being ripped off,” Trump said. “And he's the one politician that talks about that.”
Other candidates who have spent most of their time recently courting their partisan bases also seemed to recast their message for a wider audience.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie noted that despite facing a legislature controlled by the Democratic opposition, he’s enacted reforms to property taxes and other issues.
O’Malley, who has assiduously courted the progressive left during his longshot bid for the Democratic nomination, seemed at ease highlighting what he said was his nonpartisan approach to governing.
"The nature of leadership has changed in the information age. The place for the leader to be now is in the center," O'Malley said.
"That's the way that I've always governed."
No Labels was founded in 2010 as an attempt to reverse the polarization and gridlock in Washington. It counts some minor and largely symbolic victories since – bipartisan seating at State of the Union addresses and a “No Budget, No Pay” provision to spending bills that would not pay members of Congress if they fail to meet basic budgetary deadlines.
The group billed Monday’s gathering as sign that consensus exists for the four broad goals it has called on White House hopefuls to endorse – creating 25 million jobs in 10 years, extending the life of Social Security, balancing the budget and achieving energy independence.
“We’ve basically been running a campaign without a candidate,” said No Labels co-chairman Jon Huntsman, who served as President Obama’s first ambassador to China then tried to win the Republican nomination to challenge him in 2012.
“It’s fair to say we are activists for a successful America," he added. "Washington’s dysfunction is directly affecting the health, wealth and well-being of America’s families, and it has to stop.”
The group says it may ultimately endorse a candidate. Co-chairman Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, said the backing would be like the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” and “be a way for voters to know who is serious.”
Several leading candidates, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, had no presence at the gathering. But in their absence some lesser-knowns may have at least gained a foothold with voters like the Penningtons of Peterborough, N.H.
Beyond O’Malley, Richard Pennington, who ran unsuccessfully as a No Labels candidate for county attorney, said he also was impressed with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“I don’t understand why he’s at 1%,” he said. “He was pretty moderate it seems to me.”
Heather Makechnie of Andover, N.H., also an undeclared voter, identified the same two candidates as having impressed her.
“I have long felt that the office of president has become so complicated that one man cannot do it,” she said, adding that O’Malley “seems to be one who can organize a team and work with a team. He seems conciliatory by nature.”
Her husband, Arthur, a registered Democrat, said he would never even have considered a Republican until he saw Graham.
“I agreed with a lot of what he said, and he seems to have a good grasp of the issues,” he said. “Not that I always agree with his solutions.”
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