Here, in a classic New Hampshire crossroads at the beginning of what is expected to shape up as a classic American presidential election, is the classic challenge of the 2020 campaign writ large.
At the front of the Hobbs brewpub stands Tulsi Gabbard, a four-term congresswoman from Hawaii with a gold-plated résumé for the new age: A native of American Samoa and the daughter of a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, she served in Iraq and Kuwait, is a vegetarian and – her distinguishing characteristic – has a moderate Democratic profile. She’s running for president and like so many of her rivals is nowhere in the polls, but in the past several days she has been everywhere in New Hampshire, conducting a blitz across the state that next February holds the first presidential primary.
Her struggle: To break out of a pack of Democratic candidates that in the next several weeks may grow beyond two dozen contenders. Each of those presidential hopefuls argues that defeating Donald Trump is a national imperative – assuming he survives the Mueller report and the myriad of investigations that have Democrats calling for his impeachment. Each of them – even former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who just completed a nine-county campaigning marathon here, even senators such as Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who have campaigned vigorously here – is struggling to make a breakthrough.
“The experience I bring both as a soldier and serving on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees give me a unique background,” Ms. Gabbard said in an interview. “It makes me qualified to serve as commander-in-chief in a way the others can’t match.”
Yet in her effort to stand apart, she is not standing alone.
“Tulsi Gabbard is in the exact same place as all the others," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "They all have a narrative they hope will separate them from the others. She, like the others, has a personal story that’s very appealing. And she, like the others, will need a lot of time here and a lot of luck to stand out from the crowd.”
Indeed, more than ever, running for president in 2020 requires standing out.
It is a hard grind in the Granite State. Just this past weekend – nearly 600 days from the election – six candidates, none of them any better situated than Ms. Gabbard to make a breakthrough, crisscrossed the state. They appeared at small collegesand in small towns. Two of them visited Littleton, population 5,928. Two of them held events in brew pubs. And two of them visited maple sugarhouses.
This is slow going, and the long odds are part of a long game. Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland has been campaigning for two years, making two dozen visits to Iowa, site of the first 2020 caucuses, and will make his 15th visit here for this week.
“He was here before anyone else,” said J.D. Scholten, a political folk hero in Iowa for last fall coming within three percentage points of defeating GOP Representative Steve King, considered by progressives as the congressional face of racism. “For someone like him, it’s very important to have the time to get known, build a staff, make a chance for himself. The key to winning for him is time.”
Right now the candidates are meeting voters but veterans of the New Hampshire primary know that many local residents won’t make their decisions until the week before the contest. This early campaign is really an audition, conducted in part to win public interest if not support, to be sure, but mostly to win the coveted allegiance of the cadre of local New Hampshire political activists who, every four years, play an outsized role in choosing the country’s president.
“For now the goal isn’t only differentiation from the field,” said Andrew Smith, who leads the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “They’re not so much campaigning for voters as they are trying to prove to activists that they’re legitimate enough to get them to sign up to work for them and to organize throughout the state.”
That’s why, at a raucous rally in Berlin, N.H., close to the Canadian border, Saturday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts didn’t ask the four dozen people who crowded into City Hall for their vote but instead bid them, “If you think this is a way to run a campaign, go to elizabethwarren.com.” She’s more interested in building an organization right now than winning vote commitments.
One of the reasons there is such pressure on former vice-president Joe Biden to decide whether to run is not to pin down voters but to pin down activists, organizers – and fundraisers. To hesitate is to let these activists and contributors drift into other camps. (Mr. Biden and Bernie Sanders are virtually tied in early polls.)
One of the favoured forums for these vital auditions is the Meet at the Press forums conducted in the press room of the Conway Daily Sun (circulation 16,100). Another is the Politics and Eggs breakfast, so well-established here that these events have high-profile sponsors such as Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, Comcast and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.
“The question is how candidates make sure that at the end of it all they are at the top of the heat,” said Ann Selzer, a prominent Iowa pollster. “Having a presence gives you a shot.”
In some cases that requires a shot and a beer. Ms. Warren made sure she was portrayed downing a cold one earlier this winter. The most popular selection in the brewpub where Ms. Gabbard appeared Saturday morning is a wildflower honey beer created with organic lemon juice. It, like Ms. Gabbard, is called a Wannabe.