MANCHESTER — With the first Democratic presidential primary debates 10 days away, analysts and some candidates are openly wondering what voters want more — someone who can beat a controversial President or someone who inspires them.
Several rivals stepped up their attacks last week against front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden, revealing they believe the secret to success is taking from Biden the mantle of most electable Democrat.
“I think there are two halves to this. For folks who are more aligned with a progressive brand of politics and identity politics, there are reasons they don’t want to see Biden on top. They see him as too safe, too cautious,” said Wayne Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs with New England College.
“When you see all these candidates being able to beat Trump in national polls this week that helps that argument. Yet there are so many Democrats who are fed up with Trump and want to be done with him. Unless there is a moment or major mistake, their sense may be that guy is Joe Biden,” Lesperance said Friday.
Meanwhile, the role Donald Trump has already been playing in this primary — taunting and belittling some Democratic rivals, ignoring others — only complicates matters.
“All of these head fakes from Trump leave voters wondering, “What do they mean?” said Chris Galdieri, associate professor of politics with Saint Anselm College.
“It’s like teenagers trying to read signals from the person they like. It leaves them dazed and confused. You don’t make great decisions when you are trying to read anybody’s mind.”
Even couples attending the same political event together Friday came away with different conclusions.
Pat and Bill Fecteau of Londonderry came to see Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on a sun-splashed afternoon in an upper-income residential neighborhood of Windham.
“To me I believe it is both, electable and likable. I want Trump gone, of course, but I also want to feel as if this person is speaking for me and what I care about,” said Pat Fecteau, who was impressed with Warren’s plans and her passionate pitch on the stump.
But Bill Fecteau said he’s got a one-track mind about this race.
“As long as that candidate figures out a way to beat Trump, I’ll be much happier, whoever it is,” he said.
Knock Biden off pedestal
Some of these candidates struggling to break through in this 23-person field have decided it’s time to try to knock Biden off his pedestal.
There are those who don’t refer to Biden by name, but it’s clear who they are talking about.
“In these times, Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s,” said South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in a speech to California Democrats last weekend.
“If we want to defeat this President and lead the country in a new direction, we must be ready to transform our economy and our democracy into something different, something better.”
At that same San Francisco event, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont noted Biden skipped the event to instead keynote an Ohio meeting for a leading gay rights organization.
“As you all know, there is a debate among presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen for whatever reason not to be in this room about the best way forward,” Sanders said. “Let me be as clear as I can be: In my view, we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign.”
Others were even more blunt, including former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Asked by MSNBC on Thursday if Biden was, as O’Rourke put it, one of those leaders “from our past,” he answered: “He is, and that can’t be who we are going forward. We have to be bigger, and we have to set a much higher mark.”
Republican strategist Tom Rath of New Castle said the hostility toward Trump is making this race less ideological and more focused on who can take him out.
“This is not a popularity contest. I think there is a real soberness to making this judgment by voters right now that is impressive,” Rath said.
“I think there is a common acceptance many of these folks are competent, so the ability to win the general election right now at least overarches everything, including all the issues people care about.”
After an early but slow start, Warren has been starting to peak of late with one national poll at week’s end having her in second place behind Biden, though the candidate was dismissive about that outcome.
“Polls right now don’t matter,” Warren told reporters.
She was likewise not concerned that the luck of the draw by the Democratic National Committee will leave her off the debate stage with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who will star in the second debate on June 27 in Miami.
Warren will instead be in a June 26 debate with nine others, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with O’Rourke.
“I’m just excited to be able to talk about why I am in this fight,” Warren said.
Turning ‘her’ story into voters’ story
Democratic activist and radio talk show host Arnie Arnesen of Concord said Warren has recovered from being pilloried by Trump as “Pocahontas” for claiming to be of Native American descent.
She’s done it by getting voters to relate to her through a broad swath of policies from taxing the super-rich to eliminating student loan debt and proposing lobbying/ethics reform, Arnesen said.
“You think she has a plan for this issue or that, but she really has a plan for you. That’s why she is connecting and starting to make a move because she offers a compelling way for how her plans can make the lives of working people better,” Arnesen said.
“Electability is really about convincing voters if you get into office, you’re really going to be able to accomplish something and not just talk about it.”
Jackie Wood, a retired kindergarten and readiness teacher, is chairman of the Auburn Democratic Town Committee.
We do need to find someone who can beat Trump, but if we get there without a plan and policies that can change this country, then what have we accomplished? Not enough,” Wood said.
“You can’t pick just anybody and hope for the best. This is going to be a really tough choice.”
Kari Lerner, a former state representative from Chester, said she thinks the electable candidate is the one who is moderate and whom liberal Democrats can embrace.
“You really need someone who can build that bridge between Bernie and Hillary supporters last time,” said Lerner, who in 2017 won a stunning, special election upset in a rock-ribbed Republican district.
“Who can win both camps over? It could be Warren because she’s got a great life story and she’s talking about the issues millennials care about — student debt, affordable housing.”
But for some already in the likely Warren column, it still comes down to that top mission, to make Trump a one-term President.
Maureen Murphy is a retired fifth-grade teacher from Newton.
“I did some canvassing for her in Nashua, and the people who were home said their top issue was they wanted to defeat Trump. Then when you ask them what the second most important thing was, they said it was to get rid of Trump,” Murphy said.