MANCHESTER, N.H. — Elizabeth Warren courted hundreds of New Hampshire voters Saturday, kissing babies and introducing her golden retriever, Bailey, to a crowd at a community college, while polishing her populist message of taking on Washington on behalf of the working class.
“This is our moment in history,” Warren said.
Meanwhile, a handful of Bernie Sanders’ core supporters gathered in Nashua Saturday afternoon to encourage him to seize the moment, as well — before he gets eclipsed by Warren.
“In his silence I am worried that some faux progressive will be the nominee and define our issues to the right,” said New Hampshire state Representative Mark King, a Democrat who hosted about 10 people as part of a nationwide “Organizing for Bernie” event to persuade the 77-year-old senator from Vermont to run.
Warren’s early campaign launch has given her a few precious days alone in the spotlight to sell a populist economic message to primary voters, particularly progressives who had supported Sanders in 2016. And nowhere is that edge more important than in New Hampshire, where expectations for Warren are sky high, and competition from her ideological fellow traveler and New England neighbor will be particularly fierce should Sanders decide to run.
“I’m here because I have to decide between the two of them,” said Jessi Hull, a 2016 Sanders supporter from New Boston who wore a “She Persisted” T-shirt to a Warren event. “She’s certainly a strong candidate in my heart right now.”
Asked how she would distinguish herself from Sanders in the state, Warren said she was not a “professional politician,” and had campaigned to change government for the benefit of working families long before being elected senator in Massachusetts in 2012.
“You know, this is my life’s work,” Warren said. “And I just didn’t see any point in waiting. We need to be in this fight and we need to be committed to this fight.”
Sanders has a significant edge in New Hampshire: He won the 2016 primary here with 60 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton, continues to top the likely Democratic field in polls, and retains a loyal network of local organizers. But Warren, whose message of a middle class under attack by greedy corporate interests significantly overlaps with Sanders’, also has an advantage, for now, at least: She’s actually running.
“The decision to launch on Dec. 31 may go down in history as accidentally brilliant,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the pro-Warren Progressive Change Campaign Committee political group. “It gave her a week-plus of having the lane to herself.”
The stakes are high for her to perform well in a neighboring state that serves as an important early hurdle for presidential candidates. On Saturday, Warren greeted the crowd as her “neighbors” and joked that when she talks about a housing proposal before a New Hampshire audience, she is also expected to discuss how to pay for it.
“I do think because she is competing for a lot of the same voters that Bernie Sanders has that it was smart to get in early,” said Jim Demers, a longtime Democratic operative in New Hampshire who’s backing Senator Cory Booker. “I’m a total believer that New Hampshire is a do-or-die state for both of them and only one can live and only one will die from the New Hampshire primary.”
The generally positive reaction among progressives so far has helped Warren reset after being criticized for touting a DNA test that showed distant Native American ancestry. A week ago in Iowa, she drew large, enthusiastic crowds to multiple venues, including in the eastern part of the state where Sanders ran well.
Already, she’s made inroads among the community of activists that powers early campaigns. In Iowa, for example, Warren snagged Sanders’ former state caucus director for her staff there, a warning to the Sanders world that key players will get poached the longer he stays out.
And she recently topped a straw poll the progressive group The Daily Kos conducted, with 22 percent of the vote. Sanders, dogged by recent reports that female members of his 2016 campaign staff were harassed or mistreated, came up a distant fifth, with just 11 percent.
“He can’t play the ‘I’m more progressive than thou’ card in this field, so he’s got nowhere to go but down, as other candidates become better known,” the Daily Kos wrote of Sanders’ poor showing.
While Warren doesn’t have Sanders’ national network, hitting the trail before him allows her to make her populist pitch on her own terms and prove she’s capable of carrying the progressive mantle in 2020.
Subtract the personal story about growing up working class in Oklahoma, and Warren’s announcement video, former Obama adviser David Axelrod told the Globe, “could have been a Bernie Sanders video.”
But the benefits of owning that populist mantle early go beyond Sanders in a crowded field of Democrats.
An adviser to liberal billionaire Tom Steyer cited Warren’s early messaging while explaining his decision last week not to run for president, according to The New York Times; Steyer felt Warren already commanded the message that he would have run on.
New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said Warren’s rollout was “extraordinarily well done,” but he doesn’t believe she puts pressure on Sanders, who ran strong among New Hampshire’s large bloc of independent voters.
“Bernie has such a foundation of support both here in New Hampshire and across the country that he can decide whenever he chooses to make a decision,” Buckley said. “He has his own timetable.”
At the national level, Sanders’ supporters acknowledged they are eager for him to decide.
“People want to get going,” said Jim Zogby, a board member of the pro-Sanders Our Revolution political group.
But he said Bernieworld isn’t threatened by Warren.
“She’s the flavor right now and there will be others who will be flavors who come along,” Zogby said, but Sanders’ “flavor was tried and liked by too many people for it to hurt him if he comes out a week or a month or two months from now.”
Sanders, for his part, has not said when he will make a decision — only that he will run if he concludes he is the best candidate to defeat President Trump.
“I think the readings he wants to take are not among politicians but among voters out there and his sense of where the Democratic Party in the country is,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to the senator.
Correction: Former New Hampshire state Senator Sylvia Larsen’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to Pindell’s Ground Game newsletter on politics.