MANCHESTER, N.H. — Waiting for former vice president Joe Biden to take the stage at the crowded Rex Theatre Saturday afternoon, Will Stuart, 40, admitted he felt a bit unsettled at his uncharacteristic inability to pick a Democrat to vote for in the fast-approaching primary.
“In previous primaries, I knew my person,” said Stuart, a Tennessee native who has lived in New Hampshire for 15 years. “That’s not been the case this time around, perhaps because there are more candidates and just so many choices — it’s almost like the paradox of choice.”
With no clear front-runner after the problem-plagued Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire voters agonized over which candidate to back as the Democratic contenders swept like a snow squall across the state Saturday to insist they were the best equipped to defeat President Trump.
On the other side of the historic theater, Kathleen McCarthy, 70, also struggled with indecision. She saw strengths in all of the candidates, which made her choice harder. But the retired health care worker from Nashua was decisive on one point.
“I am excited to get rid of Trump,” she said.
But which candidate is the best to do that? Many New Hampshire voters are spending this weekend desperately trying to figure that out.
Only about half of the state’s primary voters said they have definitely decided whom to vote for on Tuesday, according to a CNN poll published Saturday, leaving the final days of the primary campaign unsettled and unpredictable.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders appear to have finished in a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses and are neck-and-neck in New Hampshire polls, trailed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Biden.
Biden’s weak fourth-place finish in Iowa, and blunt debate-stage admission that he doesn’t believe he’ll do well in New Hampshire, have knocked down voters’ perception of him as a battle-tested political veteran who can take down Trump. And a larger percentage of New Hampshire voters now say they believe Sanders, not Biden, has the best shot in the field at winning a general election.
“I never paid attention to all the front-runner talk,” Biden told the crowd in Manchester Saturday. "Nothing in my life, like [for] most of you, has come easy.”
Biden showed the pressure he’s feeling. He gave an at times emotional closing speech that seemed to resonate more with voters than those he delivered in the final days of campaigning in Iowa. His campaign also released an attack ad mocking Buttigieg’s mayoral experience as small potatoes compared to his vice presidential record. Biden also called out his rising rival by name on the stump.
“Mayor Pete, who is a good guy, likes to call me part of the old failed Washington,” Biden said. “Really? Was it a failure when I was in the Senate and got the Voting Rights Act passed for 25 years?” He later scoffed at a reporter’s comparison between his attacks on Buttigieg and Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Barack Obama for his inexperience in 2008.
“Oh come on, man,” Biden said. “This guy is not a Barack Obama.”
But whatever Buttigieg is doing, it appears to be working. Nearly a thousand people packed into a small two-story auditorium at Keene State College to hear him speak on Saturday, with some hanging over the edge of a second-floor balcony to get a glimpse of the surging candidate.
With three days to go before the election, the young former mayor was unusually blunt as he asked for people’s vote.
“I am the candidate best prepared to defeat Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. Then he launched into a new portion of his speech apparently aimed at criticisms he received during Friday’s debate over his inability to attract more Black voters’ support and questions over his dismissal of a Black police chief in South Bend.
“It is also a time for those of us who have not had their lived experience of systemic racism and discrimination in the way that you do when you are African American in this country to ask of ourselves how we are making ourselves useful as allies,” he said.
Buttigieg pitched himself as the best candidate to unite Democrats, independents, and Republicans turned off by Trump. But he purposefully did not spend much time talking about the president, beyond his standard line of asking people to imagine the first day that the sun will rise on a country where Trump is no longer in charge.
"Even though I’m ready to go toe-to-toe with this president, you won’t see me talk about him that much, because the more I’m talking about him, the less I’m talking about you,” Buttigieg said.
But many of the voters who came to see him Saturday in person were very much focused on the man currently occupying the White House — and desperately vetting Buttigieg’s chances for ousting him. Tim Congdon, 65, of Keene, said he is torn between Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. In the campaign’s final days, Congdon has been researching the candidates to try to answer his number one question.
“The main thing is who can beat Trump,” he said. “Who can stand up to him, get down and dirty on the debate stage?”
Congdon said he plans to check out Sanders in person, too, but ultimately fears he is too liberal to be electable. A potentially life-altering consequence looms over his decision, since he plans to take drastic action if the Democratic nominee cannot win in November.
“If not, I’m going to have to move to Canada,” he said. “Seriously.”
Another voter curious about Buttigieg, Linda DeLong, 70, from Swanzey, said this is the first time she has no clue who she will vote for this close to the primary.
“I am absolutely not decided,” she said as she waited in line to enter the Buttigieg event with a friend. “It’s never been this close to a voting day when I have not made up my mind.”
DeLong thought Biden was the best person to take down Trump, but now she’s not so sure. “I just don’t think he’s got the drive,” she said.
About 35 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll taken last month said they believed in their “gut” that Trump would win reelection, compared to nearly 50 percent saying they thought he would be defeated. That fear permeates many voters’ decision-making process, making them less loyal to candidates than usual.
Michael Sullivan, 75, who has long supported Warren, said he is worried about Sanders, a democratic socialist, winning the primary and is eyeing other candidates whom he believes can beat both Sanders and the president.
“I’ve been supporting her, but I have to say I will jump ship,” Sullivan said, while leaning against the wall and waiting for Warren to speak at a small theater in Derry on Thursday. “I will go in whatever direction seems to be the way to get rid of Trump.”
He said he believed Sanders would be an “absolute disaster” for the party.
In Rochester, a long line of supporters snaked around the Rochester Opera House, waiting in the frigid temperatures to see Sanders. His supporters acknowledged the opposition to him from some corners of the Democratic Party.
“They’re scared of him, not just winning the nomination, but winning the White House,” Sanders’ surrogate Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, told the crowd of hundreds, speaking of the Democratic establishment.
Earlier, at an appearance in Dover, Sanders addressed the concerns about his candidacy as the crowd cheered. “The establishment is getting nervous,” he said.
Sanders then mocked the fears.
“People are standing up, fighting for justice? How do we stop that?” Sanders asked. “Well,” he said, “they ain’t going to stop it.”
Warren, who has slid in the polls in her neighboring state, rallied her most committed supporters at a community college in Manchester before they hit the streets to canvass for votes on Saturday. She dusted off an old rallying cry that she’s seldom used on the trail before — and one that appeals particularly to women.
“Mitch McConnell said those words that a lot of women put on T-shirts, a lot embroidered onto pillows, a lot have had tattooed on their bodies,” she said, to a roar from the crowd. “Nevertheless, she persisted!”
Then, Warren urged the hundreds of volunteers gathered in front of her to start knocking on doors and “do a little democracy.”
Jess Bidgood, Laura Crimaldi, Laura Krantz, and Jazmine Ulloa of the Globe staff contributed to this report.