Commentary: If Biden wants to be next New Hampshire ‘comeback kid,’ he needs to show up

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Somersworth, N.H. Following his fourth-place finish in Iowa, Biden is hoping to build momentum in New Hampshire. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Michael Graham (TNS)

Democratic national committeeman Bill Shaheen, husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and a big booster of Joe Biden, says the former vice president really needs to win the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. “Even if he had won in Iowa, I don’t think he could afford to lose in New Hampshire,” Shaheen says. “We’re working this to win.”

Perhaps he should tell that to Joe Biden.

On Thursday, as one body blow after another hit the Biden campaign — more bad numbers from the Iowa caucus, national polls showing him trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders, yet another embarrassing news story about Biden’s brother Frank — the candidate was nowhere to be found. Biden took the day off the campaign trail.

Worse, his stop in Somersworth, N.H., on Wednesday was just his fifth event in the state this year. The Associated Press reports Biden had the fewest New Hampshire events of any of the candidates regarded as being in the top four in the race. It’s an astonishing fact given that, thanks to the impeachment trial, senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were stuck in D.C. most of that time.

“Joe Biden has never liked New Hampshire,” one veteran Granite State Democrat told NHJournal. And more and more, New Hampshire Democrats are returning the favor. In July, Biden was soaring at 34% in the RealClearPolitics poll average for New Hampshire, well in the lead. Since then his numbers have trended steadily downward. His support has fallen from above 23% to below 18% in the last three weeks alone.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Biden supporter and moderate Democrat. “He did a great job Wednesday night in the CNN town hall, had a lot of energy. He’s got to keep that up.” But even D’Allesandro was at a loss to explain Biden’s absence from New Hampshire.

The “it’s a marathon” message echoes senior people around Biden, suggesting that despite what Bill Shaheen says, the campaign has already baked in a New Hampshire loss. Lots of talk about the “South Carolina firewall” and how New England candidates are expected to win here.

But losing in the early states is rarely a winning strategy. Just ask President Rudy Giuliani. And the effects of winning and losing can already be seen on the ground. Biden had just $9 million cash on hand heading into New Hampshire and he’s struggling to raise more. A super PAC is airlifting $900,000 in TV ads into New Hampshire this week in a media rescue mission.

Sanders, on the other hand, began this cycle with twice as much money in the bank ($18.2 million) and his campaign received an additional 1.3 million donations totaling $25 million in January.

In many ways, Biden is rerunning Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. He’s lined up the big-name endorsements like Shaheen, former Gov. John Lynch and former state party chairmen Ned Helms and Joe Keefe. And like Clinton, Biden’s offering a fundamentally negative vision — “You can’t seriously be thinking of voting for that guy?!” — rather than a positive one.

The difference is that Democrats uncomfortable with Sanders’ style of socialism four years ago only had one other option. Today they’ve got Pete Buttigieg, and his support is rising, not falling.

Biden must believe that Buttigieg is a threat because he used a few of his rare moments on the New Hampshire campaign trail to attack him. And like much of what Biden has tried in New Hampshire, it didn’t work well.

“I do believe it’s a risk — to be just straight up with you — for this party to nominate someone who’s never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana,” Biden told the Somersworth crowd, before turning the tables.

“Mayor Pete likes to attack me as well. He’s a good man. Calls me part of the old, failed Washington. Is he really saying the Obama-Biden administration was a failure?”

“Pete, just say it out loud,” Biden added.

Do Democrats really believe Pete Buttigieg is attacking the Obama presidency? Of course not. It’s a weak rebuttal, but the Obama years are Biden’s refuge. It’s where he always runs when there’s political trouble.

More trouble is likely on its way. Dave Carney, a GOP strategist based in New Hampshire and a veteran of national campaigns, is predicting Biden will finish in fifth place Tuesday. That would be a devastating rejection of a two-term vice president by fellow Democrats.

Biden still has a deep well of goodwill in his party, and the success of Sanders may actually help bump up his numbers among #NeverBernie Democrats. Plus, Biden has James Demers, one of the top strategists in the state.

What Biden doesn’t have is a win. Ever. He’s been running for president off and on since the Reagan administration and he’s never won a single caucus or primary.

Based on the polls, he’s all but certain to keep that streak alive here in New Hampshire.

Michael Graham is politics editor for
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