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OPINION

Living or dying in the Live Free or Die state

As Democrats look for the best bet to beat Trump, Michael Bennet pleads his case in New Hampshire

Long shot Michael Bennet is doubling down on New Hampshire.
Long shot Michael Bennet is doubling down on New Hampshire.Holly Ramer/Associated Press

NASHUA, N.H.

New Hampshire is a hill Michael Bennet is willing to die on.

The Colorado senator is scaling back his efforts in Iowa and refocusing his dark-horse presidential candidacy on the Granite State. He’ll be barnstorming its near and far reaches for the next two months, holding town-hall meetings.

“This is it, man, this is it," says Bennet, professing to be hopeful about his prospects.

“Obviously, I gotta get some luck along the way," he says. "But I haven’t had my bump yet — and New Hampshire still hasn’t made up its mind, so the next 60 days are going to be critical.”

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Normally, I’d dismiss that as whistling past the political graveyard, particularly since the affable Coloradan is languishing just above the asterisks in the state’s standings.

But this strange, unsettled campaign cycle has seen hopefuls rise and fall like carousel horses as anxious Democrats cast about for a candidate they are confident can beat President Trump.

Having won two Senate terms in purple Colorado, Bennet, like Minnesota three-term Senator Amy Klobuchar, has a strong claim to swing-state electability. Further, his center-left political profile feels like a good fit with practical New Hampshire. Or as Bennet puts it, in a nod to the state’s two Democratic senators, “If we run on an agenda that Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan can win on, then we can win, and probably will win. If we run on an agenda they can’t run on, we can’t win.”

Although it’s obviously a gamble driven by necessity, I like Bennet’s decision to scale back his Iowa efforts and double down on New Hampshire for a process reason: It’s harder for busy Iowans to participate in their state’s time-consuming caucuses than it is for Granite State residents to vote in New Hampshire’s primary.

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But with 37-year-old political phenom Pete Buttigieg currently the hot moderate commodity in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the obvious question is this: Why Senator Mike rather than Mayor Pete? After all, Buttigieg can cite recent polls, whereas Bennet is left to point to glowing praise from well-known Democrats like James Carville and Victoria Reggie Kennedy.

After professing respect for his rival, Bennet draws this distinction: “The city [South Bend] that he ran in Indiana has a budget that is a third the size of the school district [Denver Public Schools] I ran in Colorado. And I’ve had 10 years in the Senate, which is enough time to understand how to get some things done, but also why the most important things don’t get done.”

The conversation turns to Joe Biden’s charge that Buttigieg pilfered his Medicare for All Who Want It public-option plan from the former vice president.

“That means they must have both stolen it from me,” Bennet says good-humoredly, noting he has long advocated adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act.

This week, he’s emphasizing his plan to dramatically reduce poverty in America, key aspects of which are a substantial increase in the child and earned income tax credits, and transforming the former into a monthly, rather than once-a-year, income supplement. He also calls for debt-free public college (room and board included) for all low- and moderate-income students, and a $15 national minimum wage, though with a differentiated phase-in for rural areas.

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Democrats can accomplish things like that if they don’t get hopelessly bogged down in a Medicare for All battle, says Bennet, who professes perplexity at the muddle Elizabeth Warren had made there. The Massachusetts senator now says she’d strive to enact a Medicare option in her first 100 days as president, and then push for full, private-insurance-eliminating, single-payer system in year three.

That means she’d spend her entire first term trying to pass “two massive health care bills," Bennet says.

“Why go through it?” he asks. “Pass the Medicare option, my bill, and if people want to get off private insurance, they can get off private insurance. Just let it happen.”

I mention that when I have previously written about Bennet, one regular reader refrain has been that they’d be inclined to support him if they thought he was viable.

“That’s my job,” he says. “I gotta get my head above water. I gotta give people a sense I can win.”


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh