Beto O’Rourke’s road trip had come and gone after three whirlwind days of events across New Hampshire. But the candidates who campaigned in his wake this past weekend also received enthusiastic welcomes, even without standing on countertops.
Despite their lower position in the early polls and sporadic national media coverage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) each met standing-room-only crowds, ovations and long lines of selfie-seeking fans. So did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has maintained a position in the midst of the Democratic pack since entering the race in January.
Although the boom microphones and television cameras were missing, voters didn’t mind.
In this state where vetting presidential wannabes has been a point of pride for decades, the early enthusiasm being generated by even lesser-known candidates with low standing in polls is a reminder of the excitement many Democrats feel about this deep field of candidates and the opportunity to defeat President Trump.
“The field's really exciting because it’s so varied,” said Kathy Canedy, 69, one of more than 300 people who attended a town hall meeting with Klobuchar on Saturday morning in Rye, in southeastern New Hampshire along the coast. “It’s been a while since we’ve been really excited,” she said. “And we’re going to take a look at everyone who comes through.”
Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, arrived just days after a shaky performance in a nationally televised town hall. But like many things that generate chatter on television and Twitter, his awkward response to a question about putting a woman on the ticket didn’t appear to register with voters.
“Hickenlooper’s at the top of my list,” said Frank Fahey, a retiree who has already seen four other Democratic presidential candidates this year, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and O’Rourke, who visited all 10 counties in New Hampshire during his three-day swing last week.
“I know he seems like a long shot, but we’ve got 11 months to go,” he said of Hickenlooper after an hourlong meet and greet in a strip mall in Lebanon, on the state’s western edge, where the crowd of 150 people spilled out onto the sidewalk.
“The pundits don’t pick the nominee — we do.”
Hickenlooper, who is working to focus voters on his experience while refining his stump speech, was surprised to find fans waiting for him in New Hampshire.
Bobbi Boudman showed up wearing a “Hickenlooper 2020” shirt she bought online the day after the 2016 election.
“I just figured then we were going to need a nice white male in 2020, and I liked what he seemed to be about,” she said.
Another woman met him Sunday morning during a stop at a diner in Littleton, eager to show off her vanity license plate carrying his signature phrase: “Giddy up.”
The candidate appearances also, once again, provided evidence that voters — at least those who show up at candidate events 10 months before the primary — have issues on their minds that often differ from the day’s headlines.
Klobuchar, who drew 4% support in a February poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters, spent an hour answering questions in a creaky junior high school gymnasium. No one asked about the report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III submitted the day before.
“I think people in these early states have their own agendas,” Hickenlooper said in an interview over a hurried lunch of tacos. “And their own agendas are more about the cost of their healthcare and the impact failing schools are going to have on their kids, what kind of jobs their kids are going to have.”
Winning is voters’ top priority, Klobuchar told reporters after spending 25 minutes shaking hands and posing for pictures. “Why they are so open to different candidates is because they want to make sure they pick someone who can win.”
Of course, voters’ ideas of electability vary widely; and not all of them subscribe to the idea that they need to choose between finding a winning candidate and one who agrees with them on policy issues.
“Policy and beating Trump go together,” said John Raby, one of more than 100 people who attended a town hall Friday afternoon in Henniker with Gabbard, a candidate who, like Hickenlooper, barely registers in the polls but is still drawing overflow crowds.
“Tulsi is the first one I heard really talk about how military spending is a root cause of our deficit,” said Raby, 74, who currently ranks Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and O’Rourke as his top three contenders.
“It's much more wide open I think than the initial polling I've seen would indicate.”
Margie Poznanski, who also attended Gabbard’s town hall, where organizers rushed to find more chairs after the 80 initially set up were quickly taken, also came away impressed.
“She had very good answers on nuclear weapons,” she said. “Honestly, she's got a lot more than Beto has.”
Several voters expressed skepticism about former Rep. O’Rourke of Texas.
“I really haven’t heard much substance from him yet. He just seems like that bright shiny object right now,” said Patricia Demarco, 64, who attended Klobuchar’s town hall and came away impressed.
“I got quiet chills when she was speaking. She inspires trust and is very relatable — it's less of a sugar high with her.”
Sunday morning inside a sugar shack nestled in the White Mountains, where the winter snow is just now beginning to melt, Warren met with 25 people and heard from the operator about how climate change is harming maple syrup production.
“This is an existential threat. People in Washington may not want to admit that,” she said. “But people who live here see it every single day.”
Down the road an hour later, she spoke to 200 people packed into a high school auditorium. A few of them found seats on the riser set up in the back of the room, where only two small cameras were positioned. There were no network correspondents ready to amplify her talking points.
The voters spending their weekends packing into small spaces and peppering candidates with questions are a long way from deciding how they’ll cast their ballots next February. But they’re already spending a lot of time contemplating the choice.
“Do I want bombast or Midwestern nice? Pragmatism or someone who really digs in?” said Dan Heying, a bank manager from Concord who took part in a roundtable with Hickenlooper in Manchester on Friday afternoon. “I'm having this conversation with myself in my head, and I really don't know the answers yet.”
Heying, 32, and several other voters expressed interest in seeing more of a candidate who wasn’t in the state: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., another supposed long shot whose virtuoso performances in a televised town hall and interviews are generating enthusiasm.
“He's done so well, people are growing less skeptical about the idea of him,” Heying said. “I could really see him being the nominee.
“In today’s world, nothing is far-fetched.”