Politics

In N.H., Democrats fight to get out of Clinton’s shadow

Rivals try to forge own identities

Democratic hopefuls are fighting for the scraps of the spotlight from Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire.
Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
Democratic hopefuls are fighting for the scraps of the spotlight from Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire.

DURHAM, N.H. — Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, got almost all the way through his pitch to a packed living room recently before the Democratic presidential hopeful was hit with a familiar question.

“How do you see yourself as distinct from Hillary?” asked one guest.

O’Malley, tie loosened as he stood before a wall banked with signs bearing his name, rocked back and smiled.

Advertisement

“The distinct-from-Hillary question,” he joked.

Get Today in Politics in your inbox:
A digest of the top political stories from the Globe, sent to your inbox Monday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

And there it is.

Hillary Rodham Clinton looms larger in the New Hampshire primary than any of the other Democratic hopefuls — combined. So it is almost without fail that her foes get asked a Clinton question while in the Granite State, much to their chagrin.

And, as Clinton completed her much-publicized second trip to New Hampshire on Friday, her likely Democratic rivals are still fighting to be known.

The four seek to set themselves apart from the Democratic front-runner, declaring their differences with subtle and overt references to areas in which Clinton has taken considerable criticism. O’Malley and Senator Bernie Sanders run to her left on income inequality; former senator Jim Webb emphasizes his resume and military background; former governor Lincoln Chafee talks about his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Advertisement

While Clinton’s every move is parsed by the national media, her opponents hunger for attention, pleading their case in church basements, bookstores, and bars.

“I immediately flash to the image in ‘Ghostbusters’ when the marshmallow monster started to appear,” said Peter Burling, a retired New Hampshire legislator and former Democratic national committeeman. “Is that the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire? Maybe. We’ll find out.”

New Hampshire has long been Clinton country, and the former US secretary of state has leveled considerable resources here by hiring staff, opening a campaign office, and amassing more than 1,000 volunteers online, according to her team. Already this cycle, she has won support from the state’s top Democrat, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, all the way down to the first vice-chair for Portsmouth Democrats, Laurie McCray.

“There are people who are like ‘I’m for Hillary and don’t waste my time trying to persuade me otherwise,’ ” said Larry Drake, chair of the Rockingham County Democratic Committee. “Then, there’s a segment, and it’s hard to say how big it is, that is definitely not supporting Hillary and are looking for someone else.”

Ideology plays a part in that search for an alternative — and for the unaligned political operatives looking to gain experience, so does professional development, said state Representative Katherine Rogers, who once worked for President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale. Clinton’s camp is filled with the state’s top Democratic operatives, and political hands, she said, have a choice to make.

Advertisement

They can either be a little fish in the Clinton pond or “be the biggest fish in the little pond,” she said.

“This is their chance to be an ambassador, to be the person who made a somebody out of nobody,” said Rogers, who has yet to endorse a candidate. “That kind of thinking — ‘what will my role be in the campaign?’ — that helps someone challenging Hillary Clinton.”

Some Democratic activists said they worry about the outsized nature of Clinton’s campaign, asserting that New Hampshire voters play a critical role in the electoral process by vetting presidential candidates. That’s why they’re wary of what critics call a “coronation’’ of Clinton some nine months before voters go to the polls.

“It’s the difference between Google Maps and Google Earth,” said Burling, who describes himself as leaning toward O’Malley. “What a contest from Bernie, or Martin O’Malley, or senator Webb is going to give us is a more profound understanding.”

New Hampshire is a state where, as one Democratic activist put it, the candidate who shakes the most hands twice usually prevails.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders gives brief media interviews after speaking at a house party in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, May 2, 2015. Sanders discussed economic issues facing the country.(AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
Cheryl Senter/AP
Bernie Sanders was in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month for a house party.

Thus far, all but one candidate has obliged. Most of Clinton’s challengers have visited the state more often than she has this presidential cycle, and they’re holding events that are mainly open to anyone who wants to attend. By contrast, Clinton’s events have been invitation-only.

Sanders, an independent Vermonter who is seeking the Democratic nomination, returns Wednesday for two town hall meetings and a house party. Chafee of Rhode Island – who has yet to formally declare his candidacy – returned Tuesday to speak with Merrimack County Democrats, and on May 31 he’ll serve as keynote speaker at the Rockingham County Democrats’ annual clambake. And Webb of Virginia is exploring a run, recently wrapping up a two-day visit to the Seacoast area, a Democratic stronghold. It was his first trip to the state since October.

“If we run, and if we get support, this is a vital place for us to be able to communicate,” Webb told a group of about 35 activists at a house party in Portsmouth. “We are not going to have the kind of money that a number of other candidates are going to have, but it is great place to do what we are doing right now, which is to sit down to talk to people and listen.”

The Webb house party was held by McCray, a local activist, who admitted to being “ready for Hillary but open to every qualified Democratic candidate.” And when the ubiquitous Clinton-question was asked by reporters at a luncheon last week, Webb answered, “I don’t have a comment.”

Jim Webb campaigned in New Hampshire this month.
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Jim Webb campaigned in New Hampshire this month.

Before Friday, Clinton only had made one, daylong trip to New Hampshire, where she spoke to small groups at a manufacturing business, community college, coffee shop, and house party. Her Friday trip included two announced events: a “small community” discussion at Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Hampton followed by a grass-roots organizing event in Exeter.

By contrast, O’Malley has made numerous visits, playing his guitar before young voters at a Nashua lounge and giving a policy talk to business leaders at the speakers series known as Politics and Eggs breakfast. During O’Malley’s most recent trip, he started the day at a Manchester diner and ended it at noted activist Dudley Dudley’s house party.

Once during the day, he warded off a reporter’s question about the Democratic front-runner with this response: “I didn’t come here to talk about secretary Clinton.”

And again at the Dudley house party, where attendees sipped wine from Trader Joe’s, they peppered O’Malley with questions — including the familiar one.

This time, he offered an explanation.

Speaking now to the activists, O’Malley said that if he announces a run, as he is widely expected to on May 30, he would choose not to define his campaign by his comparison with Clinton, or any of the other Democratic contenders, but would offer a positive reason to choose him.

“I have a new perspective,” he said, drawing a distinction with Clinton, who is 15 years older. “I see things in a way that is much more in tune with where our country is going rather than with where our country has come from in a generational perspective.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Jim O’Sullivan at jim.osullivan@ globe.com. James Pindell at James.Pindell@globe.com.