GREENLAND, N.H. — At the Portsmouth Country Club, a New Hampshire 9-year-old named Nate put U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on the spot.
“Do you think you have a good shot at being president?” he asked.
“That’s a great question,” Gabbard said as an audience of nearly 200 whooped and roared. “Do you support me?”
“I don’t know,” Nate said, eliciting an even more raucous response.
New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday and Democratic candidates are making their final push to convince the people here that they’re the best bet to beat President Donald Trump in November.
After a dismal showing in Iowa — where only 17 people stuck with her through the final vote — the stakes couldn’t be higher for Gabbard.
The Hawaii congresswoman needs to exceed expectations here if she has any shot at staying in the national conversation, even if it is as an outsider candidate with a razor thin path to the nomination.
Nationally, Gabbard polls around 1.8% on average, which is far behind frontrunners, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Her numbers in New Hampshire are better, but nowhere near competitive.
According to polling aggregates compiled by Real Clear Politics, Gabbard averages 2.7% support in the Granite State. She’s hit as high as 6% and 7% in some surveys, but even then she rarely places better than sixth in the field.
“I like that she stands up for what she believes in even when it’s not politically helpful for her.” — Hampton resident Janet Glidden
There’s no question Gabbard is all in on the Granite State.
She moved here in December and, since the beginning of her campaign, has hosted more than 100 events, from town halls to meet and greets. She’s hit the slopes with supporters and plunged into the 40 degree Atlantic to raise awareness about opioid addiction. She’s even done some surfing.
Gabbard’s presence here is hard to ignore. She’s quite literally in your face. Gabbard’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in New Hampshire and Massachusetts on television ads and online marketing. Her name and her face are plastered all over the state, including on billboards in downtown Manchester, which is New Hampshire’s most populous city.
In an interview with the press Sunday, Gabbard said she focused her campaign in New Hampshire, the first primary in the nation, because she didn’t have the resources to make the caucuses in Iowa worthwhile.
Gabbard campaigned there early on, but bailed in October when it became clear she wouldn’t be able to break through.
“The Iowa caucus is a complex process that requires a lot of money and a lot of manpower to really compete there, both of which we didn’t have,” Gabbard said.
“So being able to spend time here in New Hampshire, we’re able to campaign through old school, grassroots campaigning and be competitive. That’s why we made this decision.”
For Janet Glidden, of Hampton, Gabbard is her first choice, and if Sanders weren’t in the race she’d be the only choice.
“I think she is different from most politicians and I appreciate it,” Glidden said. “I like that she stands up for what she believes in even when it’s not politically helpful for her. She stands up for her principles and I appreciate it.”
Glidden plans to vote for Gabbard on Tuesday, but if neither Gabbard nor Sanders wins the party’s nomination Glidden plans to stay home during the general election as she did in 2016 after Sanders lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Gabbard has a small but vocal following here. Some call themselves “Unusual Americans” — based on a description of her supporters in a New York Times article — and they wear the logo proudly. The campaign has even started selling t-shirts.
On Sunday, the congresswomen held two events, one at the Portsmouth Country Club in Greenland and the other at a theater in downtown Concord.
At each event she asked the audience to raise their hands to identify whether they were Democrats, Republicans, independents or Libertarians. The results reflected the make up of the state, where so-called “undecideds” are more than 42 percent of the electorate.
Those individuals are allowed to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary, and could be the difference maker for 2020 hopefuls vying to take on Trump.
“She’s pissing off all the right people.” — Dover resident Greg Tuveson
Gabbard in general does well with progressive Democrats, disenchanted conservatives and libertarian-leaning independents.
In 2016 she won over Sanders supporters when she quit her post as the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to endorse him for the nomination over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
She’s also a supporter of Medicare for all and the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. The main plank of her platform, though, is her opposition to U.S. involvement in regime change wars, a topic that’s endeared her to certain groups on the left, right and center.
She’s particularly popular among libertarians, and has resounding approval from the party’s elder statesman, Ron Paul.
Another unifying message is Gabbard’s disdain for Clinton, who once described the congresswoman as a “favorite of the Russians.”
Gabbard filed a $50 million dollar lawsuit against the former first lady for defamation, and has continued to use her as a foil in her campaign, whether it’s challenging the military industrial complex in Washington or her own party, which she’s described as corrupt.
Gabbard has complained loudly about how the Democratic National Committee chooses candidates to participate in debates, and most recently called on Chairman Tom Perez to resign due to the debacle in Iowa over the many problems encountered there during the caucuses.
She regularly attacks the mainstream media and recently organized a protest against CNN for not inviting her to participate in a recent round of candidate town halls.
“She’s pissing off all the right people,” said Greg Tuveson, who lives in Dover and attended the CNN protest.
Tuveson is a Sanders supporter, but this week he was sign-waving for Gabbard because he finds value in keeping her in the race. He met her nearly a year ago when she first announced her campaign.
What stuck with him was that she looked him in the eye the entire time they talked, something that he said is rare in a politician.
“There are a number of people on that stage that are utterly unexciting,” Tuveson said, talking about some of the more centrist candidates. “My hope is to see a lot more of Tulsi. I hope she stays around and continues to fight the good fight.”
Spiro Paras is one of Gabbard’s supporters who defies definition. He supported Sanders in 2016, but when Clinton won the nomination he crossed the party line and voted for Trump.
When asked why he supports Gabbard, Paris was succinct.
“In four words, I think she’s sane, she’s humane, she has wisdom and a conscience,” Paras said.
He’s been curious about Gabbard ever since she quit her post at the DNC. Since then she’s only continued to impress him, whether it was her vote of “present” during the House vote in January to impeach President Donald Trump or her willingness to take on Clinton with a lawsuit, something he described as “the bravest political act in recent history.”
It wasn’t until he met Gabbard in person on New Year’s Day while she was surfing in Hampton Beach that he knew she was the right candidate for him.
“My first instinct is to not believe a politician,” Paras said. “But she’s taken a number of actions that are seemingly very much against her personal interest and in the cause of justice.”
In some ways, New Hampshire makes sense for Gabbard.
Beth Fukumoto is a former interim director of the Hawaii Democratic Party and politician, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 after abandoning the GOP in the wake of Trump’s election.
Today, Fukumoto is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and has spent time in New Hampshire attending rallies and talking to voters.
The words that come to mind when she thinks about the Granite State, she said, are “rugged individualism.”
“It’s something that’s in the American psyche to value,” Fukumoto said. “A lot of voters in New Hampshire are looking for somebody who’s willing to go their own way and who’s willing to stand up to the establishment.”
Gabbard was once considered one of Hawaii’s most popular politicians and part of that appeal, Fukumoto said, came from her willingness to buck the local establishment there and forge her own path.
Polls have shown that even in Hawaii — a blue-hued state — Gabbard fared better with independents and conservatives than many of her Democratic colleagues.
“I think that’s what the New Hampshire voters are likely to value and I think that’s why she’s targeting them,” Fukumoto said.
Whether it pays off is another story.
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