MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — With voting underway across the state, Democrats looked to New Hampshire on Tuesday to reset the party’s presidential nomination fight and bring clarity to a young primary season that has been marred by dysfunction and doubt.
There were new signs of turbulence hours before polls closed. Flailing former front-runner Joe Biden announced plans to leave the state early, and another high-profile moderate who wasn’t even on the ballot, Michael Bloomberg, faced pointed questions about race relations.
After the chaotic Iowa caucuses failed to perform their traditional function of winnowing the race, it fell to New Hampshire to begin culling the Democratic field, which still features almost a dozen candidates.
For Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the vote was an opportunity to build on his dominance of the party’s left flank. A repeat of his strong showing in Iowa could severely damage progressive rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who faced the prospect of an embarrassing defeat in a state that borders her home of Massachusetts.
While Sanders marches forward, moderates are struggling to unite behind a candidate. After essentially tying with Sanders for first place in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, began his day as the centrist front-runner. But Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was mounting a spirited bid for the same voters.
Having already predicted he would “take a hit” in New Hampshire after a distant fourth-place finish in Iowa, Biden was essentially ceding the state. He was traveling to South Carolina Tuesday as he bet his candidacy on a strong showing there later this month boosted by support from black voters.
More than a year after Democrats began announcing their presidential candidacies, the party was struggling to coalesce behind a message or a messenger in its desperate quest to defeat President Donald Trump. That raised the stakes of the New Hampshire primary as voters weighed whether candidates were too liberal, too moderate or too inexperienced — vulnerabilities that could play to Trump’s advantage in the fall.
During the final day of campaigning, many voters said they were still struggling to make a choice. Betty-Joy Roy, a 64-year-old director of activities at an assisted living facility in Manchester, said she decided only Monday to vote for Sanders.
“I’m sick of politics as we know it, and I’m ready for someone who can do something,” she said. “It was between him and Biden. I was having a hard time but I think we need a change.”
Democrats were closely monitoring how many people showed up for Tuesday’s contest. New Hampshire’s secretary of state predicated record-high turnout, but if that failed to materialize, Democrats would confront the prospect of waning enthusiasm following a relatively weak showing in Iowa last week and Trump’s rising poll numbers.
Trump, campaigning in New Hampshire Monday night, sought to inject chaos in the process. The Republican president suggested that conservative-leaning voters could affect the state’s Democratic primary results, though only registered Democrats and voters not registered with either party can participate in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary.
“I hear a lot of Republicans tomorrow will vote for the weakest candidate possible of the Democrats,” Trump said Monday. “My only problem is I’m trying to figure out who is their weakest candidate. I think they’re all weak.”
Trump also attacked Bloomberg, who was showing signs of strength in polling around the country but wasn’t on the New Hampshire ballot. The president highlighted Bloomberg’s comments during a 2015 appearance at the Aspen Institute in which he said the way to bring down murder rates was to “put a lot of cops” in minority neighborhoods because that’s where “all the crime is.”
Another complication on Tuesday: weather. Forecasts called for a light wintry mix of rain and snow in some parts of the state, which could make travel treacherous.
Biden — and the Democratic Party’s establishment wing — may have the most to lose in New Hampshire should the former two-term vice president underperform in a second consecutive primary election. Biden has earned the overwhelming share of endorsements from elected officials across the nation as party leaders seek a relatively “safe” nominee to run against Trump.
But things are changing.
New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who endorsed Biden less than a month ago, spoke about him over the weekend as if he were already eliminated from contention.
“I hope the vice president does well, and I hope he can move forward, but it’s hard to say,” Shurtleff said in an interview. “The sad thing for me personally is that he’s such a terrific individual.”
He noted that no Democrat has ever become the party’s presidential nominee without finishing first or second in New Hampshire.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, sought to cast New Hampshire as one small step in the path to the presidential nomination, with contests coming up in more diverse states that award more delegates including Nevada and South Carolina, where Biden hopes to retain his advantage among minority voters.
“Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we plan to move forward,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said.
The stakes were dire for Warren as well in a contest set just next door to her Massachusetts home. She has positioned herself as a mainstream alternative to Bernie Sanders but is suddenly looking up at him and Buttigieg as Klobuchar fights to peel away female support.
Warren sought to project confidence on Monday, telling reporters she’d “been counted down and out for much of my life.”
“You get knocked down,” she said. “You get back up.”
Buttigieg, young and with no governing experience beyond the mayor’s office, is trying to emerge as the leading Biden alternative for his party’s moderate wing. He has aggressively courted moderate Democrats, independents and what he calls “future former Republicans” as he tries to cobble together a winning coalition, just as he did in Iowa, where he finished in a near tie with Sanders for the lead.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Buttigieg has come under increasing attack from Biden and Klobuchar, who seized on his lack of experience. And from the left, Sanders attacked Buttigieg’s reliance on big-dollar donors, which sparked jeers of “Wall Street Pete” from Sanders’ supporters.
Sanders has been one of the only candidates to explicitly predict victory in New Hampshire, where he defeated Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points four years ago.
Sanders spent the eve of the primary courting his most passionate supporters, young voters, at two college campuses. At a Monday night rally at an arena on the University of New Hampshire campus, a band pumped up the crowd with a cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” before Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading figure among young progressives, took the stage.
“Brothers and sisters, we are making history in this campaign,” Sanders declared at one event in Hudson.
After New Hampshire, the political spotlight shifts to Nevada, where Democrats will hold caucuses on Feb. 22. But several candidates, including Warren and Sanders, plan to visit states in the coming days that vote on Super Tuesday, signaling they are in the race for the long haul.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Rochester, N.H., and Holly Ramer in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.