And just like that, the 2020 presidential primary season kicked into high gear.
Nineteen people vying to be the Democratic nominee for President were on stage at the state Democratic convention Saturday in Manchester, and their supporters cheered, chanted and danced inside and out. For fans of New Hampshire’s favorite sport, the message of the day was clear: Game on.
Supporters of former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke arrived early enough to snag a prime spot outside the SNHU Arena at the corner of Elm Street and Lake Avenue. Supporters of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were camped next to each other, and engaged in some good-natured dueling chants as convention delegates entered the arena.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was the first candidate to greet his supporters on Elm Street, showing up before 7 a.m. to pose for photos and answer a few questions from an MSNBC reporter.
Cory Booker’s fans were across the street, leading a boisterous cheer: “C-O-R-Y! Cory Booker is our guy!” And when Booker arrived, he led the group in a parade down Elm Street.
But the biggest crowd outside — and later inside — was there for Sen. Elizabeth Warren from neighboring Massachusetts. “It’s time, it’s time, for a woman in the White House,” they chanted.
Hlllary Ballantine of Keene, 28, was sporting sunglasses decorated with the word “Persist,” a reference to a now-famous comment about Warren by Sen. Mitch McConnell. Standing next to her in the front row was 18-year-old Alexandra Pickett of Nashua, a student at MIT; this is the first time she can vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary and she said she’s excited to vote for Warren.
When the candidate herself arrived, the already electric atmosphere got super-charged. Warren trotted down the line, giving out handshakes and lots of hugs.
“I’m so happy I got a hug,” said a beaming Ballantine.
Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann, followed a few paces behind the media scrum, offering donuts to the hungry volunteers. A new chant started up: “First man! First man!”
The first-in-the-nation primary also offers a chance for activists to bring their causes before the candidates and the national media spotlight.
On Saturday, a faith-based group walked to the convention site carrying a white coffin in a mock funeral procession, symbolizing the immigrant children who have died in federal custody or while trying to cross the southern border.
The Rev. Ian Holland, pastor of First Church in Swampscott, Mass., said the group was calling on all candidates to “pledge to end deportations and detentions until a just, moral and ethical immigration policy is enacted.” His group, Essex County Community Organization is part of the national Faith in Action network.
And a coalition that included the Granite State Organizing Project and American Friends Service Committee held a “Defund Hate” demonstration outside as delegates arrived.
Parking near the arena was tough to come by. One parking lot was charging $30; it was nearly empty, as most people chose to park many blocks away for free instead.
Carol Andre, a retired educator from Portsmouth, somehow managed to squeeze her red Toyota RAV4 between two parked cars on Granite Street right next to the arena, both bumpers touching the cars in front and behind.
She’s a “100 percent undecided” voter, Andre said. “I’m here to learn.”
Her friend Monica Greenleaf, a reading tutor from Portsmouth, said she’s frustrated that the national media has only focused on a handful of candidates. She’s been impressed with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, she said: “She’s smart, has good experience, and can appeal, I think, to the whole country.”
“Really?” Andre asked.
“Except for my friend,” Greenleaf amended.
Greenleaf said she was looking forward to hearing from Mayor Pete Buttigieg — and she does like Klobuchar and Warren.
Before the 2016 election, Andre said, “I remember saying to my sister, ‘I’ll never vote for an old white man again.’ ” And on Election Day, “I just was so proud to be voting for a woman.”
This time around, she said, “I love that there’s a large field with a lot of diversity and a lot of camaraderie. I hope they don’t start bashing each other.”
Some of that camaraderie was on display inside. A woman wearing a Kamala Harris hat and T-shirt posed for a photo with former Maryland Congressman John Delaney. And Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan was chatting with a couple of young volunteers holding Biden yard signs. “Keep your eye on me, OK?” he said.
A large group from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is supporting Biden, reserved the Sam Adams Brewhouse suite for the day. Doug Stern, media relations director for the IAFF, said Biden has always been a strong supporter of unions “and we know as President, he’s going to continue to do so.”
IAFF members started their day early, meeting at Manchester’s Central Fire Station at 6 a.m. to walk to the arena, he said. “When the vice president spoke, our group lit up,” he said. “They were happy with what they heard.”
Former U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter was greeting old friends in the hallway. “If I were Donald Trump right now, I’d be terrified,” she said. “The energy here and the commitment to recapturing our reputation and our vision is so on display. I think everybody understands that this is the most important election we have seen in many, many decades.”
Shea-Porter said convention-goers were happy to hear from all the contenders. “We know the next occupant of the White House is here today,” she said.
She’s supporting Biden, she said, but added, “I would support any one of these candidates.”
A woman with her arm in a sling stood in one of the arena’s food lines, draped in yellow caution tape. Turns out it wasn’t a political statement.
It was State Rep. Susan Treleaven, D-Dover. Three weeks ago, she fell and broke her wrist and shoulder in two places each. “I’m really glad I could be here today,” she said.
The caution tape was to keep people from bumping her in the crowd, she said.
Treleaven said she hadn’t made up her mind about whom to support in the primary, but she expected that would change “by the end of the day.”
Even as convention-goers began trickling out of the arena, the campaign day wasn’t over for the candidates.
Sanders was speaking to supporters at the Central Ale House. Buttigieg went to a picnic in nearby Veterans Park where, a short time later, a long line of Warren supporters waited for the chance to pose with the Massachusetts senator.
As the convention wound down, some voters said they had narrowed down their choices after the day’s speeches while others said they had expanded their lists.
Suzanne Allison of Barnstead, part of the Belknap County delegation, said she was impressed with O’Rourke, Booker and Warren. “Those three rise to the top,” she said. “But I could honestly vote for any one of them.”
Tess Smith, an Alton resident who winters in Florida, said she was leaning toward Warren before the convention. “And now I’m more convinced she will be my candidate,” she said. “She convinced me … that she can turn this country around and that she can beat Trump.”
These days, she votes in Florida, she said, “but my heart is in New Hampshire politics.”
State Rep. Jennifer Bernet, D-Wilton, said she liked a lot of what she heard on Saturday. “It’s hard for me to decide,” she said.
What is she looking for in a candidate? “Somebody who has a clear message that can reach a lot of people, and who can work well with a lot of different constituencies. Bring people together and heal the factionalization.”
Her top three candidates are Harris, Warren and former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro. She also liked what O’Rourke and Buttigieg had to say. “All of them have something to contribute,” she said. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”
The convention, she said, “makes me hopeful for the future.”