Manchester, N.H. — It’s Sunday morning in New Hampshire. Just two full days to go before voters line up to help decide the Democratic nominee. Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s junior-high gymnasium speech opens its doors in 40 minutes, and already there’s no parking for blocks of slow-moving, salt-and-dirt covered cars — a mainstay of New England winter.
A Trump truck found the premo spot in the house, and the driver is happily celebrating with a MAGA flag and pop country music on his radio. Sporting New Hampshire license plates, he gestures up the Hudson, N.H. street when asked where he lives. He does not, however, want to give his name “to the fake news media.”
Smart man. By the time the rally ended, he’d been joined by some friends (and their plows). A local fan club of sorts. They wanted to know if we’d enjoyed “the clown show.”
The line for the rally extends out the door, south down the wall, then around before zigzagging around the other side of the school in 25-degree weather. Untested campaign staff move carefully, many unsure of themselves, although the people wait more than an hour in freezing weather with a political cheerfulness you’ll only find during primary season in Iowa and New Hampshire. Many are in line for disappointment.
Inside, chants from the slowly swelling crowd of supporters switch back and forth between “Boot! Edge! Edge!” “Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!” and the occasional “Hash-tag Pete! Hash-tag Pete!” There was no way the gymnasium was going to fit them all, and well more than 100 are left outside more than an hour after doors opened, but#Pete is greeting them before he comes in, the campaign assures us.
New Hampshire Rep. Annie Custer gets a round of applause calling for a future that is “carbon-pollution free.” They all might be terrified to know her every utterance pumps more CO2 into the room.
When Pete finally takes the stage to the cheers the audience has been practicing for more than an hour, he gives the crowd something special: The exact stump speech he’s given to dozens of other organizations, easily YouTubed from the warmth of home, although home lacks the excitement of a rally. Then, as the 20-minute stumper comes to a close, a treat called “the fishbowl game”– Four crowd questions, written down and chosen by the campaign “at random” from the bowl.
“What’s the first thing you’ll do to lower prescription drug-prices?”
“Please address the Billionaires for Pete criticism.”
Then, a policy for the opioid crisis — and its effect on the foster-care system, specifically — hitting New Hampshire. The final question was kicking off when I jumped in the car, and moments later Pete, too, was back on the road, heading northeast to Dover for the next fishbowl segment. Canned and mismanaged, yes — but it’s impossible not to notice the throngs of voters.
Thirty miles north in Manchester, 200 people of all ages are packed into the back room of Shaskeen Pub to hear Bernie-supporter Michael Moore record a podcast. “The man himself is back there,” one bar patron slowly tells me, without looking up from his Sunday crossword.
But I’m late, it’s at capacity, and there’s an hour wait for buffalo wings on account of the Revolution’s food orders. First food shortage of the new regime. As anti-war ballad “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” drifts to The Pogues, it’s easy to recall why the pub is the natural home of rebellion.
Just across the river from Pete’s morning rally, the high school parking lot in Derry, N.H. is filling with Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters and press. The staff move the afternoon crowds along seamlessly, and while their organization skills contrast with the morning mayor’s, so do the crowds.
There are precious few applause lines today, and there’s scant attempt to fire up the crowd before the main act. Instead, local school psychologist Michelle O’Leary tells the tragic story of her child, stricken with a degenerative brain disease but fighting on in the hope of a cure with the help of new medications. When Biden takes the stage, he quickly chokes up — the story’s reminded him of his son, who died of terminal cancer. It’s one of many glimmers of Joe Biden’s incredible ability to reach people personally, although these moments are quickly clouded by stuttering, muttering, and rambling as reporters look back and forth at each other.
It’s a slow, sad, drifting speech, and the vice president stumbles often, trying to get straight if mental illness causes drug addiction or drug addiction causes… or never mind.
Cancer, drugs, cancer, spousal abuse, homelessness, cancer, abusive husbands “blowing out her brains.” An attempt to applaud the Violence Against Women Act jars Biden back into the moment — that moment being two days until the primary — and he abruptly switches from quiet and morose to angry and yelling.
“Trump! Because he’s owned by the N.R.A!”
The anger continues another five minutes, before a menacing, whispering narration on neo-Nazis, Trump, Vladimir Putin, Trump, disabilities, and Trump.
“Like many of you,” he whispers as his speech concludes, “I’ve lost a lot in my life. I lost my wife, children, my son to cancer.”
“But I’ll be damned,” he yells, “if I’ll lose my damn country!”
There’s no fishbowl at question time. It’s authentic Joe, picking and choosing from the crowd, acknowledging to his team more than once that he’s going to get in trouble for this answer and repeatedly asking the sharks in the press pen to not run away and misinterpret him.
“I’m undecided,” a seated woman in the front row tells Joe. “I love you, but I’m undecided.” She’s terrified, she continued, that “one of you can’t beat him but all of you can. Is there any way we can put together a dream team? Amy [Klobuchar], you’re vice president, Andrew [Yang], you get Commerce?”
She’s not alone. Can you please pick a vice president from among the losers of the race? another asks.
The elderly provide the heart-warming moments completely lacking from Buttigieg’s contrived set. Biden and a 92-year-old Marine share an hysterical exchange on licenses and aging. An older woman in the front row told him to make America proud again, prompting a kiss on the cheek and a picture.
A young boy, his nightmares filled by horrible teachers with fears of eating plastic in his fish, asked how Joe will stop this. He gets his answer, but also a promise to talk more after if the child has time to stick around. Staffers repeatedly try to call last question, but the vice president goes on.
There are mainstays and eye-rollers: No more drilling, you can’t fight the United States with an AK, he needs a VP who is younger than he is in case he’s “hit by lightning,” and a classic: U.S. Constitution that mentions women and not just men and black people (in the 13th Amendment).
“I think I’m in pretty good shape, and I know I can take Trump — physically and mentally,” the candidate assures the crowd. “Now all kidding aside, I’m not challenging him to a fight, but I’ll challenge him to a golf game if we carry our own bags.”
The Joe Biden Democrats love is still there but he’s cloudy, and the immaculate Pete is drawing bigger crowds. Then, you can’t even lunch when the Revolution is in town.