Pete Is a Serious Young Man. In N.H., it May Be Enough

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MERRIMACK, N.H. – Chris and Bill Mauser, retired seniors who live in this town a few miles from Manchester, drove to the American Legion post here yesterday to eyeball Pete Buttigieg up close and personal, to poke him, as it were, like a vegetable in a bin on sale at a roadside farm stand.

This is what the always-large numbers of undecided New Hampshire voters do once the shambling band of political gypsies – candidates, handlers, camera operators and scribes – rolls in like a snowstorm from Iowa.

As the Mausers explained it to me, they were doing a “market survey” of candidates other than Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. Like many voters in the small social hall, most of them seniors, they wanted to keep their mix of public and private health care, and not replace it with a giant federal program.

To older voters in the “Live Free or Die State,” even many Democrats, Gigantic Government is anathema. So, the Mausers’ idea was to assess the non-Bernies and non-Elizabeth Warrens. Joe Biden seemed to be fading; they’re curious about Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

In the meantime, they were in the legion hall to assess whether, as Bill put it, Pete had a “beefy” enough presence – “with clout, credibility, the presidential stuff” – to defeat the post-acquittal force that is President Donald J. Trump. Well, Pete Buttigieg is many things, but “beefy” is not the first word that comes to mind.

When he entered the town hall circle in the middle of the room, the Mausers saw a trim young man of 38 in a carefully-fit blue suit, blue tie and white shirt. 

He spoke earnestly, in crafted phrases and at length and in detail about his ideas as a “progressive veteran” – the ostensible messaging point of his appearance. He then fielded questions from the gray-haired vets and their families, who were surrounded and outnumbered by hordes of press.

A candidate whose message is thoughtful, bipartisan moderation, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor more than once apologized for the complexity of his answers. “I know that this is a nuanced answer,” he said at one point.

The Mausers listened respectfully. Chris was wearing a PETE button that she had been given on the way in, though she explained that it didn’t mean she was for him; Bill had on his U.S.S. Manchester Navy hat and a skeptical expression.

They weren’t won over – but not not won over, either. “I’m impressed, but can’t say I’m sold,” said Bill. He wasn’t sure, at least yet, whether Pete was “beefy enough.” But, in the end, comparatively speaking, he might be.

It depended on what was happening to the other candidates, to the context and flow of the last few days in the Granite State. The Mausers and others would either watch or hear about arguably the most important moment of the primary: the ABC-TV debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester tonight at 8 p.m.

Buttigieg’s best venues so far have been debates, where he can surprise observers and opponents with his tough counter-punching that belies his seeming geniality. Pete likes a fight. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, but he does.

“The last big debate is always important,” said Ray Buckley, the Democratic Party chairman in the state. “But this one may be more important than any I can remember.” 

In the New Hampshire primary, everything decisive happens starting Friday.

The rise of Pete Buttigieg feels less like a New Hampshire explosion – in the tradition of Gary Hart in 1984 or John McCain in 2000 – than a process of elimination. Turnout is expected to be level with 2016, or even down.

For college students and other mostly young voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere, Sanders is the man. Those kids are facing a future of massive student debt, an economy that is “thriving” because wages are being kept down, and a health care and retirement system that could collapse on them.

Bernie’s final big events are, not surprisingly, at the University of New Hampshire and Keene State College. They will be massive and fervent. In Iowa, he was unable to expand his youth brigade to other voting groups. Here, he has half the support he had in 2016, although admittedly in a much larger field. His poll numbers put him tied for the lead so far, but they aren’t moving.

Elsewhere in the field, Joe Biden is slowly fading here. Elizabeth Warren’s cadre admires her, but it feels as if she has lost the moment. Klobuchar, who was endorsed by the largest paper in the state, the conservative Union-Leader, is liked by many – especially independents and Republicans – but is having a hard time finding a path in the same lane as Pete.

And then there is the omnipresent former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He is not on the ballot here. He is bypassing the first four events to shower his billions on Super Tuesday. But he is advertising heavily, to further muddle the field and make New Hampshire seem less relevant.

The voters at the Pete event are aware of Bloomberg’s looming candidacy. Several of them I spoke to expressed interest in him, even if they end up voting for Buttigieg on Tuesday. 

“Trump calls Bloomberg ‘Little Mike,’” said Warren Curtin of Litchfield. “Wouldn’t you like to see Bloomberg go up against him on a stage? Trump would call him that and Bloomberg would answer back, ‘Well, I’ve made 60 billion more than you and I didn’t inherit any. Who is the little man?!'” 

Howard Fineman is an NBC News analyst, journalism lecturer, author, and was formerly chief political correspondent for Newsweek and editorial director of HuffPost.

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