Bennet die-hards drawn to awkward, unusual New Hampshire campaign

By Trent Spiner

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Michael Bennet is polling in 10th place. He hasn’t made a debate stage since July and won’t disclose how much money he raised last quarter.

And he can be awkward on the stump: In one 45-minute stretch at a recent town hall, Bennet swung his hands so wildly while making a point that he hit a woman in the leg, he tripped over a stool holding his water, and he nearly tangled himself in a microphone cord while trying to take off his sport coat.

Yet a small number of New Hampshire’s voters and political elites have found themselves drawn to his message, demeanor and experience, hoping almost despite themselves that Bennet could be the ultimate dark horse primary candidate.

Even his supporters admit there’s no clear path to winning the nomination. But they still see his resume as a former superintendent of schools in Denver, ten years of experience in the Senate and his age — younger than Joe Biden but more experienced than Pete Buttigieg — as reasons to hope he could emulate Gary Hart, another senator from Colorado who shot from 5 percent in polls at this time in 1984 to a double-digit win in that year’s New Hampshire Democratic primary.

“I'm very strongly Michael Bennet,” said Bill Shaheen, a state party official, after attending one of Bennet’s town halls. “There's a part of me that believes he's a person that America should choose. But I have to go with my head, not my heart.”

As much as he may want to support Bennet, Shaheen’s first concern is electability. That’s what gives pause to potential Bennet supporters: Can he win?

“I think if it didn't matter [who I picked] — if Trump wasn't such a disaster for this country — I would probably be with him right now,” he said. “But I think my responsibility is to find the person that can really win against Trump.”

His wife, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, ran Hart’s New Hampshire campaign in 1984. She is staying neutral in the primary and declined to comment.

“What I think New Hampshire has revealed many times over, including in my ancient case, is that an awful lot of the voters do not make up their minds until the last seven to ten days,” Hart, now 83 and supporting Bennet, said in an interview from his home in Kittredge, Colo. “I wouldn't discount all the polls, the front runners and so forth. The polls do not reveal the undecideds the way they should, and that's what happened in our race.”

Bennet is calm and monotone — he doesn’t raise his voice or deliver the type of rah-rah rhetoric other candidates use. Last month, when Bennet went to speak to voters at a restaurant in a rural town of under 3,000, a group of locals who voted for President Donald Trump had been drinking at the bar in the same room as his event. They didn’t know Bennet would be there or who he was. As they started to realize he was a Democrat running to unseat the president, they started loudly booing him.

“You are totally entitled to your opinion,” Bennet said diplomatically. “Let me make my case.”

They did.

In a campaign filled with stump speeches aimed at getting people fired up, Bennet is working to make government boring again. He has worked to position himself as the adult in the room. If he is elected, he wants people to not have to think about his administration for weeks at a time.

That’s endearing to some in New Hampshire, especially those who are more interested in getting Trump out of office than any one specific platform.

Bennet said he’s frequently asked how he is going to be taken seriously on Election Day. His answer is that he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing — dozens of town halls throughout the state — hoping to pick up a few supporters at each one.

Sen. Gary Hart (left) and frontrunner Walter Mondale debate in New Hampshire in January 1984.

“They want to feel like this state is still important and that the on the ground campaigning can still make a difference for a candidate like it did in the old days,” Bennet said. Sometimes, he continued, candidates “have risen in New Hampshire simply because New Hampshire decides we're not going to accept the conventional wisdom, and instead we're going to pick a candidate we think can actually do whatever the mission is.”

The campaign is hoping to place at least fourth in the first-in-the-nation primary, scheduled for Feb. 11. Third place, to them, would be a huge victory that would propel Bennet through the other early voting states into Super Tuesday.

At a town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, Bennet drew a standing-room only crowd of more than 250, including some of the party’s elite. In interviews, about a dozen voters in the room all agreed he’s in their top two or three choices, along with Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“For lightning to strike, you’ve got to be standing in the right place,” Bennet said. “And I think I've been working really hard to be in the right places.”

Former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville, who has endorsed Bennet, and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is supportive but has not endorsed, agree the path to the nomination is tough to see. Even so, Tester said politics isn’t an exact science. Tester has “busted his butt” every day to win elections and sees Bennet doing the same.

“If you talk to the (Cory) Booker's of the world or anybody else that's dropped out already, I think that there has to be a path to victory and you have to have the amount of money to be able to execute that path to victory,” Tester said in an interview. “If none of those are there, then it becomes pretty testing.”

Carville sees Bennet as a soothing moderate who can not only beat Trump but also convince people wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats to take them off.

“I don't just want to get rid of Trump, I want to get rid of Trumpism,” he said. “On election day, I want to see that army ragged, starving, freezing, retreating.”

Carville admits Bennet is no Bill Clinton — he doesn’t see any similarities in their campaign.

“The fact that it's not working, I wouldn't be discouraged at all right now,” Carville said. “Because it can work and I think it will.”

“Look, if this horse ever got out of the pen, I mean, it would run wild,” Carville continued. “It's hard to get out the pen. But we'll see.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated where Bennet accidentally struck an attendee at an event while making a point. Bennet hit her in the leg.