NASHUA, N.H. — An impassioned version of his standard speech in the rain. A huddle with reporters in the state capital. A little encouragement for a schoolboy getting ready for a hockey tournament.
Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden summoned old-school retail politics during his first campaign trip through New Hampshire as his third try for the Oval Office approaches full gear.
This two-day swing in this first-in-the-nation primary state signaled that the former vice president knows his front-runner status still requires that he meet voters and the media in intimate settings. And despite a history of freewheeling comments that sometimes get Biden in political trouble, his aides and supporters see it as an asset that is key to the 76-year-old politician’s appeal.
“Joe can connect with people, so you let him do what he’s good at,” said Terry Shumaker, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat and former Clinton administration ambassador who has endorsed Biden.
The approach isn’t without some risks for a politician who loves to veer off script.
At a Tuesday house party in Nashua, Biden offered a spirited defense of his vote as a senator for the 1994 crime bill that many progressives and African American leaders point to as a source of mass incarceration. The bill, Biden insisted, “didn’t generate mass incarceration,” pointing instead to state criminal justice systems that he says are responsible for more than 9 out of 10 prisoners in the United States.
Biden added that most black members of Congress also supported the 1994 measure that prioritized drug courts for nonviolent offenders and included a ban on certain military-style weapons.
He also casually told a questioner who had called President Donald Trump “illegitimate” that he agreed with her sentiments. Much of her commentary was about the need to take on Trump directly and fight against foreign interference in U.S. elections, but the exchange highlighted the delicate dance candidates like Biden face when they give voters such direct access.
At the least, New Hampshire almost certainly requires that kind of retail touch.
The state holds its primary the week after Iowa launches presidential voting with its caucus, and voters here are accustomed to seeing would-be presidents up close in coffee shops or on town squares.
“We like to ask them questions, and we expect them to have answers,” said retired attorney Drea Thorn, who came to hear Biden at a Hampton restaurant this week.
Biden’s communications director, Kate Bedingfield, said she has no worries about letting the veteran politician talk directly to voters.
“There will be plenty more voter Q&A,” she said. “That’s his strength. It’s his strength. He is real. He answers people’s questions. They love him for it.”
Biden certainly made an impression on New Hampshire voters who were leaning toward him already, many of them recounting their familiarity and comfort with the former vice president as an alternative to Trump.
“You’ve got to have stature; he has the stature,” said Camille Miller, an Exeter Republican who said she voted for Trump in 2016 but is tired of “the chaos.”
In Somersworth, Biden toured a former town hall-turned-museum, paying special attention to the fire department exhibit and noting the first responders in attendance. “These guys endorsed me,” he told assembled reporters, referring to the International Association of Fire Fighters’ blessing that he received the day he announced his bid.
Biden reserved special attention for a young New Hampshire resident who won’t be voting next February. When he noticed Tyler Jean, he asked the 10-year-old about his favorite sport. “Hockey,” the boy told him, as his father told Biden about the son’s upcoming hockey tournament. Biden leaned in close to offer the boy luck.
At another stop, Biden shook hands with Elizabeth O’Donnell, of Hampton Falls, but lingered a while once she told him that her husband died from the same rare cancer that killed Biden’s son Beau in 2015. “That was a special moment for me,” she said afterward.
Such scenes are par for the course during a presidential campaign in early voting states, but Biden’s team sees such personal connections as a key to his success as he consistently attacks Trump but also tries to maintain a jovial, approachable profile himself.
The New Hampshire effort did not meet uniform approval, however.
Thorn, the attorney, said she plans to vote for Biden, but she noticed several times that he launched into a policy answer only to stop short, saying there’ll be plenty of time later for details. “You can only do that so long,” she said, adding that she’s also seen other candidates take the same approach.
In Nashua, John Mara, a 65-year-old retired management consultant, was even more critical, characterizing Biden’s 15-minute speech and 25-minute Q&A as meandering. Mara said Biden, though “superb” at retail politics, didn’t seem up to the job.
“I think he’s too late,” Mara said. “Frankly, I didn’t think he was that cogent.”
Associated Press writer Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP