By STEVE PEOPLES, KATHLEEN RONAYNE, THOMAS BEAUMONT and HUNTER WOODALL
MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Democrats are hoping that voters in New Hampshire will reset the party’s presidential nomination fight on Tuesday and bring clarity to a young primary season that has been marred by deep dysfunction and doubt.
Since the chaotic Iowa caucuses failed to perform their traditional function of winnowing the race, it now falls to New Hampshire to begin culling the Democratic field, which still features almost a dozen candidates.
For Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the vote is an opportunity to build on dominance of the party’s left flank. A repeat of his strong showing in Iowa could severely damage progressive rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who faces the prospect of an embarrassing defeatin 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, begins his day as the centrist front-runner. But at least two other White House hopefuls — former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — are competing for the same voters. And billionaire Michael Bloomberg is lying in wait in the states the begin voting in March, already spending millions of dollars to introduce himself to voters as a practical alternative to the candidates competing in the traditional early voting states.
More than a year after Democrats began announcing their presidential candidacies, the party is struggling to coalesce behind a message or a messenger in their desperate quest to defeat President Donald Trump. That’s raising the stakes of the New Hampshire primary as voters weigh whether candidates are 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 only decided on 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 will be closely monitoring how many people show up to participate in Tuesday’s contest. New Hampshire’s secretary of state predicated record-high turnout, but if that fails to materialize, Democrats will confront the prospect of waning enthusiasm following a weak showing in Iowa last week and Trump’s rising poll numbers.
Trump, campaigning in New Hampshire on 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.”
Another complication that could affect turnout: weather. Forecasts call for a light wintry mix or 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 on Tuesday 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 the distance between Democratic voters and their party leaders appears to be growing.
After finishing in a distant fourth place in Iowa, Biden acknowledged he would likely “take a hit” in New Hampshire. The dark prediction during Friday’s debate disappointed New Hampshire loyalists like state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who endorsed Biden less than a month ago but 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 soon in more diverse states that award more delegates like Nevada and South Carolina, where Biden hopes to retain his advantage among minority voters.
“We plan to be competitive, but the reality is we always said this was going to be a fight. We have to let this full process play out,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said. “Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we plan to move forward.”
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’s “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. His team —- with 75 paid staffers, 15 campaign offices scattered across 10 counties and roughly 300 trained volunteers leaders heading the get-out-the-vote teams — has added volunteers since Iowa, aides said.
Buttigieg 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.
Kim Holman was one of 1,800 people who crowded into, and spilled out of, Elm Street Junior High School’s gym in Nashua over the weekend. She calls herself “super torn.”
“I’m still kind of on the fence. I love Pete’s energy and his passion,” the 52-year-old personal trainer said. “It does make me a little nervous he’s so new to politics.”
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.
Like Buttigieg, his confidence is connected to the strength of his organization. He proclaimed repeatedly in recent days that his team knocked on 150,000 doors on Saturday alone, a significant number given that the state expects fewer than 300,000 people to vote Tuesday in the Democratic primary.
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. The band The Strokes closed out the night before the audience of thousands.
“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.
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