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Change that can win? Democrats grapple with core question

  • Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden embraces a supporter at a campaign event Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) John Locher

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Marshalltown, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes the stage at a climate rally with the Sunrise Movement at The Graduate Hotel, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

  • Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a culinary workers union hall Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) John Locher

  • Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg greets supporters after his speech during his presidential campaign in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Lola Gomez/Austin American-Statesman via AP) Lola Gomez

Associated Press
Published: 1/13/2020 11:49:43 AM

The Democrats who stood in a cold New Hampshire parking lot waiting to get into a political rally said they were desperate for change after years of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency.

But like Democratic voters across the country, they’re grappling with a core question as they size up their party’s leading candidates just three weeks before primary voting begins: How much change is too much in 2020?

It is a question that has plagued candidates and voters alike over the last year in the Democratic Party’s quest to identify the person best positioned to defeat Trump in November. And on the eve of the party’s first primary, voters are torn over a slate of high-profile candidates – ranging from a self-avowed socialist to a billionaire Wall Street baron – who represent the broad spectrum of change, ideologically and symbolically, that is today’s deeply divided Democratic Party.

Just ask the two dozen voters who waited outside a recent over-packed Dover, New Hampshire, campaign appearance for Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator and the only woman in the top tier, whose campaign mantra is “big, bold change.”

“I want to see massive change. I worry about my daughter’s future – she’s 6,” said 38-year-old Democrat Margaret Langsenkamp, who hasn’t settled on a candidate but was leaning toward Warren or U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who ended his campaign on Monday. “But I’m also practical about what the American people can stomach. We have to beat Trump.”

Langsenkamp conceded that Warren, her preferred candidate, might struggle in a general election to defend her “socialist leanings.”

Or ask Janie Shaklee, who was attending a campaign event for businessman Andrew Yang ahead of New Hampshire’s Feb. 11 primary, about her top issues. Is it Iran? Impeachment? 

“The economy is much realer to me,” said Shaklee, a 69-year-old retired professor. “The world can blow apart at any point, no matter what. It’s always been that way ... anything can happen.”

With four candidates knotted at the top of primary polls, it could take several more months for the Democratic Party to sort out its high-stakes dilemma who is their best chance to beat Trump. Party officials have so far downplayed concerns about a protracted primary battle – never mind the oft-whispered prospect of a so-called contested convention – but they are encouraging the candidates to keep it positive as they debate the kind of change the party should fight for.

“The voters are thirsting, desperately, for aspirational messages,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “They want to hear about something positive. They want to hear about a moving-forward sort of change. They want to be told that there’s a better tomorrow. If you look back over the last 100 years, that’s been the winning message of every Democratic presidential candidate.”

Buckley downplayed the differences between the candidates on defining issues like health care, the economy and education, suggesting they all favor a similar path forward, even if some would change the system faster than others.

“It’s, ‘Are we going to get there tomorrow or are we going to get there next week?’ ” he said.

But symbolically at least, each of the top four candidates represents a distinct path forward.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a 77-year-old lifelong politician, offers primary voters a safe and familiar option while emphasizing a pragmatic approach to governing. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, is embracing his status as a democratic socialist and the only top-tier candidate who would fight to replace the private health insurance market with a government-backed universal system immediately after taking office. Warren, 70, is careful to describe herself as a capitalist, but she also has a record fighting corporations and agrees with Sanders’s call to transform the nation’s political and economic systems. And Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Midwestern former mayor who is openly gay and served in the military, represents dramatic change on paper but is more aligned with Biden on policy.

With Iowa’s caucuses just 21 days away, and New Hampshire’s eight days later, the sense of urgency was palpable as rival campaigns sought to distinguish themselves while courting primary voters across several states over the weekend.

Biden, campaigning in Nevada, dispatched another popular moderate to New Hampshire to remind primary voters that the path to the White House runs through Midwestern states where many worry his party is veering too far left.




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