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Politics

A year before the primary, New Hampshire is bumper-to-bumper with presidential candidates

United States Senator Cory Booker in New Hampshire, Manchester, USA - 17 Feb 2019
Sen. Cory Booker was one of seven Democratic hopefuls campaigning in New Hampshire over Presidents Day weekend.
(CJ Gunther / EPA-Shutterstock)

So many presidential candidates are already traipsing through this tiny New England state that Neil Levesque has to play traffic cop.

As the boss of a coveted speaking venue at St. Anselm College, he recently had to maneuver to keep rivals from colliding when one candidate was speaking as the advance team for another wanted to scope out the place.

The candidate-collision risk peaked this Presidents’ Day weekend when seven Democratic presidential candidates — and one Republican — showed up in New Hampshire in the space of four days.

It’s a buyer’s market for the many potential Democratic voters just beginning to size up candidates.

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“We could probably get Cory Booker to shovel my driveway,” joked Rob Penttinen, a letter carrier at the New Jersey senator’s event in Nashua, as a light snow fell.

When one woman taking a selfie with Booker said her cousin would be jealous of her meeting him, he obliged by shooting a video message for her cousin.

And the state’s first-in-the-nation primary is still a year away.

Wendy Thomas, a state legislator from Merrimack, planned to see four of the candidates over the weekend, including Booker, whose Sunday night event at a bar with old-school arcade games drew more than 200 people, according to campaign estimates.

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“New Hampshire is on fire right now with politics,” Thomas said. “This is what we do.”

The Democratic presidential primary field is on track to break records for large, early numbers.

Who’s in, and who’s still sitting on the fence? »

The Republicans’ 17-person field in 2016 holds the record for candidates, but the first major one — Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — didn’t get into the race until March 2015.

In the 2008 Democratic contest, lots of candidates jumped in very early — Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden announced in January 2007, for example — but the total never reached beyond 10.

Twelve Democrats have already entered the 2020 race; Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who aligns with the Democrats in Congress, announced Tuesday morning; former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke are still weighing a bid; and more are likely on the way.

The Democratic National Committee, in preparing for debates this summer, has contingency plans for handling more than 20 declared candidates.

The bumper crop has emerged because Democrats see President Trump as vulnerable, and because no obvious front-runner has scared off long shots.

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Many of the candidates have little or no national profile, and need to get out early to build one.

Even in the middle of the long holiday weekend, turnout was so high at campaign events across the state — including for lower-profile candidates like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — that people were sometimes turned away at the door.

Kathy Hoey, a retiree in Manchester, sees the big field as an expression of the energy lighting up the Democratic Party, which helped carry the party to win the House majority in the 2018 midterm election.

“We need as many voices as we can get right now,” she said.

But her friend Trish Joy, a nurse in Manchester, said she wondered whether such a big number would create a big muddle after a while.

“The whole state of New Hampshire is going to have all these candidates,” Joy said. “How much can you listen to before the message gets lost?”

New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina are getting the bulk of the early campaign attention because those are the first states to hold caucuses and primaries in 2020. Candidates get a lot of bang for the buck in a tiny state like New Hampshire. More than half the population is packed into two southeastern counties, where major cities are just a half-hour drive apart.

That makes the state a more accessible and affordable launching pad than California, where costly television advertising is needed for lesser-known candidates to make a name for themselves.

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“For a dime you might gain a mile here, versus California, where you could spend a hundred dollars and only get a few feet,” said Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, which hosts candidates in a breakfast series, “Politics and Eggs.”

Hopping across the state’s southern tier over the weekend were lesser-known candidates including Gabbard, Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Ind., and Marianne Williamson, a California spiritual teacher who held one of her campaign events at a yoga studio.

Also on the ground: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who spent two days in the state, including a trip to speak at her alma mater, Dartmouth College.

Sen. Kamala Harris, who spent Friday and Saturday campaigning in South Carolina, made her first visit to New Hampshire for a town hall in Portsmouth and a “Politics and Eggs” appearance, which was planned for Tuesday morning.

Some New Hampshire voters had wondered whether the state would be secondary to her strategy because she had not visited until now. It was the first question she was asked when she met with reporters at a Concord bookstore, and she addressed it again at the town hall.

“I want to get this out of the way, the elephant in the room,” she said in Portsmouth. “I plan on competing in New Hampshire, spending time in New Hampshire and doing very well in New Hampshire.”

Some 1,000 people packed into a church for her town hall event, with hundreds more left outside in the snow because the church was filled to capacity, campaign aides estimated.

“I think it’s a good sign you are here on Presidents’ Day,” one questioner said.

Later Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar showed up for a CNN town hall.

New Hampshire Democrats, who fiercely guard their opportunity to scrutinize presidential candidates up close, relished the chance to visit multiple campaign events a day.

Thomas and her husband have, between them, already seen nine of the Democratic candidates in person. At the Booker event, she questioned the senator about something that had bothered her the first time she’d seen him: his campaign theme of emphasizing the need for love and unity to heal the wounds of U.S. political culture.

“It’s very difficult to love someone who has abdicated responsibility to the people who elected them,” she told him. “Maybe we should try to kick them out first and love them later.”

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