After the earsplitting reggae faded, after the candidate tossed his unfashionable sport coat into the crowd like a rock star and after the “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” chants quieted, Bernie Sanders launched into a familiar speech that is so adored by fans that much of the audience could recite it — and at times they did.
“Do you know who the largest welfare recipient in America is?” Sanders asked, his voice hoarse from day after day of shouting about political revolution. The crowd in a college gymnasium screamed in response, “Wal-Mart!” And so it went. Sanders rode his momentum back into New Hampshire on Sunday after a quick hop to New York to appear on “Saturday Night Live,” where he managed to make a plug for democratic socialism in a skit.
The insurgent showed no sign of yielding an inch of the ground he has gained in New Hampshire as Hillary Clinton’s campaign struggled to close a gap that several polls put at double digits. Even as Bill Clinton, dressed like a local in a red-checked lumberjack shirt and dungarees, sought to charm voters at town halls and Hillary Clinton worked the customers at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manchester, the Clinton campaign was already looking beyond this state.
With voting here just two days away, Hillary Clinton’s main event was not in the Granite State at all. It was in Flint, Mich.
“What happened in Flint is immoral,” she said at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church, where she expressed outrage over the lead-tainted water that has gripped the city in crisis and become a national symbol of racial injustice. “The children of Flint are just as precious as the children of any part of America.”
The crisis, to which Clinton has been calling attention for weeks, has become a rallying point for her campaign. Clinton’s role in demanding accountability from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder may help her shore up already strong support among the African American Democrats whose votes are crucial to winning key states, including South Carolina this month and Michigan next month. On Sunday, the Democratic National Committee announced it will hold a presidential debate in the city on March 6.
Clinton “came when no one else would come,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said.
Clinton said the timing of her trip should not be taken to mean she sees New Hampshire as a lost cause.
“Occasionally you go off the campaign trail,” Clinton said at the Dunkin’ Donuts, where she took selfies with customers. “I know Sen. Sanders went to New York to be on ‘SNL,’ and I’m going to Flint to see if we can help with the kids. That’s part of it. But my commitment to this primary and to this state is absolutely rock solid.”
The comment was another jab at Sanders in a weekend that was full of them from Clinton and her surrogates. They questioned Sanders’ campaign tactics, his foreign policy experience, his socialist agenda.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in New Hampshire to lend support to her friend Clinton, had a jolting message Saturday for female Sanders voters: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Bill Clinton was also full of warnings. “Sometimes the facts are staring you in the face,” he told a group of voters in Milford. “For three years, the Republicans have been begging you not to nominate her. The people of new Hampshire have to decide how much weight to give their advice.”
At an earlier event, in Keene, Clinton said he understands the frustration that has propelled Sanders into the lead in the state. But he sought to convince his listeners that a vote for his wife was the most effective way to harness that emotion.
“We need anger and answers,” Clinton said. “We can start with resentment. But in the end, results are all that matters.... We can get it all back and more. But you need a change maker.”
Back in the packed, noisy gymnasium in Portsmouth, Paul McEachern, 78, was surveying the energetic Sanders crowd. McEachern was the Democratic nominee for governor in New Hampshire twice in the 1980s, and only a few months ago he was featured in the pages of the Portsmouth Herald newspaper accepting a social justice award from Bill Clinton.
His loyalty has shifted.
“When the campaign started out, I was figuring I would support Hillary,” he said. “When the Goldman money came out, I could not,” McEachern said, referring to the speaking fees the Clintons have accepted from financial giant Goldman Sachs.
He was struck by how many unfamiliar faces there were in the crowd of 1,200 at a community college in the outskirts of town.
Sanders “has a very universal appeal for people, the same way that Trump has an appeal on the other side,” McEachern said. “I just hope these people vote.”
Not all of them were set on voting for Sanders. New Hampshire voters are known to take their time making up their minds. And several at the Sanders rally were still pondering how they might cast ballots.
“I’m not sure yet,” said Houston Green, a 27-year-old independent from Londonderry who over the last week has visited separate town halls hosted by Clinton, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. “I came here to see if they can bring it out in me. The Bernie sensation, you know?”
It was in New Hampshire that Bill Clinton earned himself the label “comeback kid” after he rose from nowhere in the polls to a second-place finish. Clinton reflected fondly on that election in 1992, when his support surged a dozen percentage points in a matter of days. He declared his wife’s current race is “1992 on steroids.”
Manchester resident Roger Francoeur, who has voted for the Clintons in every election in which one of them has run, isn’t so sure. Francoeur said he had hoped hearing Bill Clinton would help him make up his mind, but this year “is a tough decision.”
“It’s her big-money donors to her campaign,” he said. “Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and say I’m not voting for the person I like. But is this the time? I don’t know.”