PETERBOROUGH, N.H. (AP) — Trying to upset President Joe Biden in New Hampshire’s primary, Democratic challenger Dean Phillips is running a TV ad across the state comparing him to Bigfoot — the argument being both are hard to find.
“I’m something of an expert on elusive creatures," a man dressed as sasquatch intones in the spot. "So I challenged myself to find President Biden in New Hampshire during this primary season. I thought I was good at hiding.”
Biden isn’t campaigning here. He pushed through Democratic rule changes that prioritized voters of color, deemphasizing New Hampshire’s primary. That angered party officials here who forged ahead with a primary anyway. With his name not on the ballot,
Biden’s allies are running a write−in campaign to try and ensure he doesn’t lose — or come uncomfortably close to losing — to any of the nearly two dozen candidates actually on it — a motley collection including a hopeful whose first name is President and a performance artist who wears a rubber boot on his head.
While Tuesday’s vote won’t affect the numbers in the Democratic nomination fight, it does carry risks for an incumbent with low approval ratings and nagging worries within his party about his reelection prospects. Biden’s challengers also include Phillips, who is a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, and self−help author Marianne Williamson, and both are raising questions about Biden’s age and electability that his team would rather avoid.
Anything less than a strong finish for the president could hurt, further fueling concerns about his chances in November in a likely a rematch with former President Donald Trump. But Biden supporters in New Hampshire echo his campaign’s arguments that he must be reelected to thwart the dire threat Trump poses to the country’s core values.
“There’s definitely some frustration and disappointment for how this played out, but I trust that Granite Staters are able to look at the bigger picture and realize the stakes of this election,” said Angela Brennan, a first−term New Hampshire representative backing the write−in campaign. “This is truly a choice between democracy and dictatorship.”
Phillips is perhaps Biden’s highest−profile challenger in New Hampshire, though he has revamped his message over several months and been sharply criticized by his colleagues in Congress.
His campaign has faced an often bumpy ride. No voters showed up to one recent event he held, leading him to deadpan to reporters, “Sometimes, if you build it, they don’t come.”
On Thursday, Phillips won the endorsement of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who garnered national attention running a longshot Democratic bid in 2020. As Yang declared during a Dartmouth rally that he was endorsing Phillips, organizers cued blaring walk−up music and the congressman bounded into the room cheering into his own handheld mic.
Only Yang wasn’t finished with his speech. “No, no, no,” he cried. “I have more time here.”
“Oh,” replied Phillips, as he eventually headed back into the hallway. “Bye everybody!”
But he and others have soldiered on through the New Hampshire winter. Earlier in the week, Phillips stood in a state legislator’s kitchen in his stocking feet. Heavy snowy had fallen the day before and around 15 attendees were asked to leave their slushy shoes at the door.
That kind of personal access is prized by people here who cherish their state’s first−in−the−nation primary.
“We’ll be showing them that it’s not just the polls, it’s voters saying, ’It’s time to move on,’” Phillips said of his chances of pulling a New Hampshire upset. He calls Biden “a good man” who will nonetheless lose to Trump if he doesn’t step away.
His host that night was Peter Leishman, a 66−year−old representative from Peterborough who works in the railroad business and supported Biden’s three previous runs for the White House, in 1988, 2008, and during his win over Trump.
“It’s time for a change,” Leishman said.
The White House and Biden’s reelection campaign generally aren’t commenting on Phillips other than noting his near−uniform voting record supporting the president’s legislative priorities. But New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, who once warned that the new calendar meant a major Democratic challenger could embarrass Biden, now says his write−in campaign should easily prevail.
People vote on key issues like abortion, not a party delegate rule, he said.
“It doesn’t seem to be having any impact at all,” Buckley said.
Also running and seeking a boost from Biden’s skipping New Hampshire is self−help author Williamson, another 2020 contender who recently told an audience in Portsmouth, “Even if the Democratic Party can take delegates away from me or any other candidate, they can’t take the significance of the New Hampshire primary away from you.”
Phillips has spent almost $2.5 million on television and digital ads in New Hampshire, according to media tracking firm AdImpact. The Bigfoot−style spot has racked up nearly 4 million impressions on TV and online, according to AdImpact.
The Biden write−in push has just one paid staffer and no official support from the president’s reelection campaign. Relying on volunteers, it works out of an office lent by the AFL−CIO and is spreading the word mostly by visiting Democratic gatherings around the state and holding house parties, while producing thousands of yard signs, as well as hand−held placards it hopes supporters will hoist at every polling location on Tuesday.
A super PAC called Granite for America is also sending mail to New Hampshire Democrats with three−step instructions on how to cast a write−in vote, and trumpeting Biden pledges to protect Social Security and abortion rights, while preventing Trump from returning to the White House.
How much is being spent on that effort isn’t clear but it seems substantial. One Democratic voter received five mailers from the super PAC in two days this week, and one of the group’s leaders, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan, said she got a call from a woman saying, “I’ve had seven mailings and I’m going to vote for him. You can stop sending them.”
Sullivan promised that only one more would be coming.
“I’m very happy with what we’ve done and I hope that it works, but this being New Hampshire, we never know until the election,” she said with a laugh. What would constitute a Biden win? “I don’t have a number in mind, I don’t have a percentage in mind.”
Ellen Lavoie Cooke, a 65−year−old Democrat from Dover, said she plans to write in Biden’s name: “I’m not embarrassed to be an American like I was when his predecessor was in office."
Yet Desmond Kager, a 24−year−old engineering consultant from Plymouth, is a Democrat who doesn’t support Trump but noted of Biden: "I probably won’t be voting for him because of the write−in.”
“If Republicans or Democrats can put someone on the ticket that actually is, you know, worth voting for, then I’ll I vote for them,” he said. “But it’s been hard the last couple elections.”
Write−in organizers are attempting to manage expectations, noting that undeclared New Hampshire voters can participate in either party’s primary. That means Biden supporters could vote in the Republican primary, where Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are locked in a fiercer and higher−profile battle for the state’s GOP delegates.
Tracy Moloney, 63, a math department administrator at Dartmouth College, came to hear Phillips speak at the event with Yang and plans to vote for him — though she said she’d ultimately vote for Biden in November if he’s the nominee.
“I don’t know how he does that," Moloney said of Phillips beating Trump. “But I also don’t know how Biden does it. That should scare everyone."
Associated Press videojournalist Rodrigue Ngowi contributed to this report from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Will Weissert, The Associated Press