MANCHESTER, N.H. — If there’s any place where Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters should be feeling skittish, it’s here.
Her large lead in the polls has evaporated, with frustrated voters in this first-primary state drawn to the economic justice message put forth by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from neighboring Vermont. And trust in Clinton is eroding, fueled by questions about her use of a private e-mail account as secretary of state. Reservations about her candidacy have led some Democrats to urge Vice President Biden to enter the race.
But Clinton stalwarts here say they remain confident, with some expressing the same sense of inevitability about their candidate that her critics say has made her vulnerable.
“New Hampshire voters get serious when they get closer to the election,” said Jim Demers, who co-chaired President Obama’s 2008 effort in New Hampshire and is supporting Clinton this time. He predicted voters will choose Clinton after weighing questions such as “Who’s able to run the country?” and “Who’s going to be able to reach across the aisle and get things done?”
At the same time, Demers conceded, “I think it’s going to be competitive right until the end.”
Independent analysts cite several reasons for the Clinton camp to be concerned, including that many New Hampshire voters feel they have not benefited from the nation’s economic recovery. A sizable chunk of those who cast Democratic ballots here tend to be drawn to anti-establishment candidates, and New Hampshire has a history of embracing contenders from neighboring states.
“Clinton has some serious problems,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Maybe Bernie Sanders isn’t the ideal candidate to run against her, but the anti-Clinton vote is where the energy is.”
Even if Biden doesn’t get in the race, Smith said, the speculation about his entry is hurting Clinton because it plays into the narrative that she’s a “wounded” candidate. If Biden does get in, the race will be shaken up.
The Granite State was kind to Clinton when she ran eight years ago, rescuing her campaign — temporarily — after she finished third in the Iowa caucuses. But the loss in Iowa briefly sent her plummeting in some New Hampshire polls, which showed her trailing Obama by double digits just days before she pulled off a three-point victory.
“I’ve never seen a New Hampshire primary where the polling sticks all the way through,” said Colin Van Ostern, a member of the New Hampshire Executive Council and a Clinton supporter. “Fluctuation is the norm.”
The primary will be in February.
The volatile state of the electorate was on display this week in a Clinton campaign office here, where a half-dozen volunteers worked their way through printouts of voter names, calling people to check in on where they stand.
While some positive connections were made, the callers also endured several hang-ups and requests not to call during the dinner hour.
“It really does run the gamut,” said Victoria Williams, a 20-something who lives in Manchester and works for a nonprofit organization. “Some people are super excited about Hillary. Some people are undecided, and some are flat-out disinterested. Right now, we’ve got a lot of undecideds.”
Kathleen Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a Clinton backer, said that while a Biden candidacy would get a lot of attention initially, it’s not clear how he would fare as a candidate.
With so many candidates on the Republican side, she said, it’s hard to get a lot of sustained media coverage. And among the Democratic candidates, both Clinton and Sanders have already spent months building organizations in New Hampshire.
“It’s difficult for anyone to get in a race now where two people are dominating,” Sullivan said.
Lou D’Allesandro, a longtime state senator and Clinton booster, said Sanders deserves credit for tapping into an anger that is coursing through the electorate this year. “The public feels like they’ve missed out on the recovery, and they want a piece of the action,” he said.
Asked if he thinks Sanders could win in New Hampshire, D’Allesandro said that “anything can happen. But the Clinton people are very well respected, and that remains a constant.”
The more likely scenario, D’Allesandro said, is that “the group that Bernie is attracting will hopefully coalesce and come Hillary’s way.”
The extent to which that might happen remains to be seen. Both Sanders and fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, campaigned in New Hampshire this week. Many voters who came to their events said they were drawn in part by a desire for an alternative to Clinton.
“I think she’s part of the establishment, and I don’t trust her,” said Jane McEnrue Kiefer, 53, a medical coder who came to see Sanders in Littleton, N.H. Kiefer, who described herself as a political moderate, said Sanders’s pledges to help the middle class really resonate with her.
At an O’Malley stop Wednesday in Hollis, N.H., retired radiologist Bob Liscio said he is leaning toward either Sanders or O’Malley, in part because of the probe of Clinton’s e-mail use.
“I like Hillary. I’m very much a supporter of women in politics and in life,” said Liscio, 69. “But I’m worried because of the controversy. . . . People are worried about her. Democrats should be looking for some new blood.”
Clinton, who has made seven trips to New Hampshire since announcing her candidacy, was last here 2
With a sizable fundraising advantage over her rivals, Clinton has started airing television ads in New Hampshire — something neither Sanders nor O’Malley has done. And she has a larger operation on the ground, with eight offices around the state and about two dozen employees.
Sanders is not far behind, however. While he has only two offices now, his aides say that they hope to have seven or eight by the first week in September and could soon match Clinton’s staffing levels.
If history is any guide, Sanders could benefit from the proximity of his state to New Hampshire. Activists supporting both campaigns can quickly tick off a list of Massachusetts and Vermont politicians who have performed well here, including Michael Dukakis, who won in 1988; Paul Tsongas, who won in 1992; John Kerry, who won in 2004; and Howard Dean, who finished second in 2004.
But Clinton backers insist she will prevail.
“Ultimately, people want their votes to matter and will see her as the stronger nominee against a Republican,” said Terry Shumaker, a New Hampshire lawyer who co-chaired both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns in the state.