PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Kamala Harris touted Medicare for all, an assault weapons ban, and the Green New Deal on her first visit to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate Monday. But the message she emphasized the most to Granite State voters was a simpler one: I’ll be back.
“I just want to get this out of the way,” the freshman senator from California said to open up her packed town hall Monday evening in Portsmouth’s South Church. “I intend to compete in New Hampshire. I intend to spend time here. I intend to shake every hand that I possibly can.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s expected to enter the 2020 race soon, won New Hampshire with more than 60 percent of the vote in the last Democratic primary, and political watchers believe he and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who shares a similar message to Sanders, most likely have an edge here.
But Harris went out of her way Monday to tell voters that she will spend significant time and effort on winning the state.
“I plan on doing very well in New Hampshire,” she said.
She also put some distance between herself and Sanders, who describes himself as a ‘‘democratic socialist,’’ when asked by a reporter if she believed she would have to embrace Sanders’s ideology to win New Hampshire.
‘‘The people of New Hampshire will tell me what’s required to compete in New Hampshire, but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,’’ Harris said.
Harris has won statewide races in California three times over the years but doesn’t yet have a reputation for the small-time retail politics of New Hampshire or Iowa, where voters expect oodles of face time and seize the opportunity to grill multiple presidential candidates on their priorities.
“Sometimes in some of the bigger states it’s harder for folks to grasp it’s completely different than running for office in their home states,” state Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said. “Running for president in Iowa or New Hampshire — it’s as if you’re running for a statewide school board race. You have to go to people’s homes.’’
Town halls can also feel like intense grilling sessions. “The process of a town hall in New Hampshire is a learning experience for candidates,” said Sylvia Larsen, a former president of the state Senate. “In New Hampshire it’s practically a second career or sport, we’re all very much engaged in the details of politics.”
But on Monday, Harris showed an early aptitude for it, responding in detail to hypergranular policy questions.
She fielded over a dozen questions from voters, who asked her to commit to visiting a particular child detention center in Florida, to cosponsor a bill on drug pricing (it turns out Harris was already a cosponsor), to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day (she’s for it), and to vow to support a sweeping voters’ rights bill as president.
Though Harris responded well to particular questions, her main message remains sweeping and at times vague. She stressed that the country is “better than this” and that she believes she could accomplish policy changes as president by reminding people they have more in common than they realize.
“The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” Harris said.
Harris’s vow to compete in the state reflects local activists’ sense of the state of play — that anyone could come in and win New Hampshire at this point, despite Sanders’s edge.
Few party bigwigs have thrown their support behind any candidate.
“This is the most wide open primary we’ve had since 1992,” said Judy Reardon, an environmental activist and longtime Democratic operative in New Hampshire.
“While there’s a slight advantage to Senator Sanders and Senator Warren, it’s not an overwhelming advantage that can’t be overcome by a strong organization and a strong message,” said Buckley.
New Hampshire was a hotbed of presidential ambition this Presidents’ Day weekend. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York pitched themselves to voters in crowded town halls, and Amy Klobuchar participated in a CNN town hall. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., stopped by the state Saturday.
As for Harris, she is so new to the state that Terie Norelli, the former speaker of the New Hampshire State House, coached the crowd about how to pronounce her name before introducing her at the town hall. “Yes it’s Comma-la,” she said.
Some voters who ventured out in a snowstorm to hear Harris speak said they were impressed with her answers to dogged New Hampshire questioners.
Stefan Mettlage, a voter who took a selfie with Harris earlier in the day at a bookstore in Concord, said he thought the senator seemed natural on the stump. Some candidates seem like “dolls where you pull the string and get an answer,” he said, while others, like Harris, can adjust and answer questions.
Jim Gedeon, a voter at her town hall Monday evening, said he was impressed with her stance on Medicare for All, which she connected to her mother’s battle with cancer.
“That’s how you connect with people — you don’t’ just throw policy at them,” said Gedeon.Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.