MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) – A parade of Democratic presidential hopefuls courted thousands of New Hampshire activists on Saturday, promising they were the candidate who could unite the party and beat U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020.
At the Democratic state convention, the contenders accused Trump of sowing hate and threatening democracy, and said the 2020 election would be a referendum on what kind of country the United States would be.
“This president has unleashed the deepest, darkest forces in this nation,” Democratic front-runner Joe Biden told the convention. “We cannot and I will not let this man be re-elected president of the United States of America.”
New Hampshire holds a pivotal early nominating contest in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Trump in 2020. The convention features a day-long series of 10-minute speeches by 19 of the candidates seeking the party’s nomination.
Opinion polls show former vice president Biden holds a narrow lead in New Hampshire over U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won the state’s primary with 60% of the vote during his failed 2016 White House bid, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But party leaders and the candidates said there was plenty of potential for changes at the top or a late charge by a lower-tier candidate, as many Democrats are still evaluating their options in the crowded field.
Several candidates, including former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said there was a thirst for some new faces in the top tier of the race.
“We need a new generation of leadership,” Castro told reporters, saying he could restore the coalition of young, minority and infrequent voters who elected Barack Obama to the White House twice.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker said Democrats would have to come together behind the eventual nominee in order to beat Trump.
“We cannot tolerate Democrats who turn against other Democrats and try to tear us down,” Booker said. “This election is not about some purity test, that if you don’t mark every box correctly you’re not a good Democrat.”
The convention comes at a crucial moment. It falls between last weekend’s Labor Day holiday, the traditional end of the summer vacation season and kickoff to more intensive political campaigning, and next week’s third Democratic presidential debate in Houston, which will give the top 10 contenders another national platform.
NO REASON TO STOP
For candidates who did not make the third debate, the convention is a badly needed opportunity for exposure. U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado brought along former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, the winner of the New Hampshire primary in 1984, who endorsed Bennet.
“I don’t see a reason to stop based on the polls,” Bennet told reporters.
Exit polls in 2016 found 68% of those who cast a ballot in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary election considered themselves very or somewhat liberal, making the state ground zero for the face-off between progressives Sanders and Warren.
All of the Democratic contenders except Wayne Messam, the little-known mayor of Miramar, Florida, will attend the convention on Saturday.
Tickets to the dinner were offered for sale to the campaigns, meaning the most well-funded and organized were able to pack in supporters and display their political muscle.
Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker and other candidates had big contingents of chanting, drumming, sign-waving supporters outside the entrance of the main arena early, and many poured inside to cheer the speeches.
While the seven-hour program runs counter to the traditional New Hampshire approach of face-to-face campaigning, it can still give people a sense of the contenders.
New Hampshire Democrats recall a well-received 1991 state convention speech by a relatively unknown Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, which helped propel him to a better than expected second-place finish in the 1992 state primary and ultimately to the White House.
“This could be a game changer for a couple of candidates,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Marguerita Choy