HANOVER, N.H. — Joe Biden came to this college town Friday and conjured what is a shocking thought, even in this extraordinary political era. What if, he asked his audience, Barack Obama were assassinated back when he was running for office?
The imaginary scenario came as Biden reminisced about the turbulent late 1960’s, when Biden was graduating from college, the country was divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and societal change.
Speaking to a group at Dartmouth College, Biden recalled the tragedies of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
“My senior semester they were both shot and killed,” Biden said. “Imagine what would have happened if, God forbid, Barack Obama had been assassinated after becoming the de facto nominee. What would have happened in America?”
The 76-year-old former vice president noted that, early on, he faced backlash for supporting women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
‘‘I remember because I was such a supporter of ERA in 1972,’’ he said. ‘‘Quote — you know why Biden’s for the ERA? He’s probably gay. Not a joke. Everybody asks why I’m the first guy to come out for gay marriage. It’s real simple.’’
In another recollection, from his teen years, Biden said that his father took him to City Hall in Wilmington, Delaware where they saw two gay men.
‘‘I watched these two guys in business suits. And they kissed each other,’’ Biden said. “And then they walked away. I remember turning [and] looking at my dad. He said, you know, Joey, it’s easy. It’s simple. They love each other. They love each other. It’s a simple proposition.’’
The remarks, coming after a speech on health care policy, will no doubt add to Biden’s well-earned reputation for making awkward statements. Yet, despite his occasional misstatements, his crowds that are often smaller than those of his opponents, and his lackluster debate performances, Biden has remained atop the Democratic field.
As Biden kicked off another campaign swing through New Hampshire Friday and Saturday, his front-runner status was (still) undeniable: In a field of more than 20 Democrats, he leads surveys by an average of 12 percentage points nationwide, 8 points in Iowa, and 2 points in New Hampshire, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
But why he remains ahead of the pack is up for debate. Some analysts point to the large field, including the prominence of two candidates to his left — US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — who directly trail him in surveys. Biden and his supporters argue that he has effectively made the case that he’s the most likely candidate to defeat President Trump.
“As long as this man is president — and this is no hyperbole — we are in trouble,” Biden said at the Dartmouth College alumni center Friday afternoon, before adding that he believes voters will be engaged in his election “because they know what is at stake.”
Biden’s message echoed what his wife, Jill Biden, told an audience in Manchester earlier in the week: “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” she said.
The electability argument is a strategy that many candidates have attempted, and so far few have found successful — even as polls have shown Democrats are overwhelmingly more concerned with whether their nominee can defeat Trump than if that person shares their values.
“Whether people agree with him or not, or they feel that he is not as progressive as they would like, they see him as very authentic, very decent, and really able to restore compassion and civility to the White House,” said former New Hampshire governor John Lynch, a Biden supporter.
Among the 500 who came to see Biden speak, many said they were supporting him because he was the most electable candidate.
“I have voted for Bernie for decades, but I am with Biden because he has the best shot of beating Trump,” said Roy Black, a 73-year-old retired state worker from White River Junction, Vt.
Biden’s ability to keep his front-runner status bucks recent history, especially as it relates to the New Hampshire primary. Think Joe Lieberman or Rudy Giuliani in 2008, or Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton in 2016: All initially led surveys in their respective New Hampshire primaries — before their campaigns crashed and burned in the state.
Even though Biden never even made it to the New Hampshire primary when he ran in 1988 and 2008, he endures as the front-runner for the party’s nomination in 2020.
“This presidential primary is unlike so many others because you have in Biden, who is so well known, and then everyone else just trying to get known but can’t because there are so many other candidates,” said Jim Demers, a longtime player in the New Hampshire primary who is backing Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.
History shows the electability argument hasn’t always panned out for Democrats. When the party picked John Kerry and Hillary Clinton in 2004 and 2016, respectively, polls at the time showed voters thought they were the most electable candidate in the primary.
“I do wonder sometimes whether (Biden) really is [as] electable as people think,” said Mort Lynn, 76, from Sunapee, N.H., who said he is undecided in the presidential primary. “When I hear him talk lately it is a bit jarring because he is not the person I remember from eight or 10 years ago.”
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp