In New Hampshire, high anxiety about beating Trump

ROCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Democrats are on edge ahead of Tuesday’s primary and feeling immense pressure to pick the candidate with the best chance of defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE.

The anxiety over who is best equipped to defeat Trump has blotted out the policy battles and put electability at the forefront of voter minds to an unusual degree. 

At town halls and forums across the state, the presidential candidates are being challenged by voters, who above all want to be convinced that their contenders have the ability to go one-on-one with the president. 

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The new fears about beating Trump come after one of the president’s best weeks since he took office; he was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, and polls show his job approval rating reaching new highs amid voter optimism about the economy.

Democrats, meanwhile, are fresh off the Iowa caucus debacle and facing the potential for a long primary fight. 

“We’re anxious,” said Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic strategist in New Hampshire.

"For a year now, people have been saying that they’ll vote for the candidate they believe has the best chance of beating Trump, and now that the impeachment process is finished and he was acquitted, people are even more anxious about getting this right," he continued. "For most voters, they think the candidates are close enough on the issues that it’s become about who has the best chance of winning. That’s what is front and center on everyone’s minds."

And adding to the tension, voters see reasons for concern about the electability of the top Democrats seeking the nomination.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden Julián Castro to become senior advisor for Voto Latino It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegIt's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrat concedes in California House race MORE are running tight at the top of New Hampshire polls, but some Democrats are worried that Sanders’s embrace of socialism will be a disaster at the ballot box.

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Buttigieg, meanwhile, is facing questions about his age and experience.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Warren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden COVID-19 makes Trump's work with black Americans that much harder MORE finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and may be headed for another tough showing in New Hampshire, further denting his electability argument. The female candidates, led by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharIt's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Congress must fill the leadership void The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump spotted wearing a face mask MORE (D-Minn.), have faced questions about whether a woman can defeat Trump.

The electability question dominated Friday night’s debate in the Granite State.

Businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout MORE repeatedly raised the alarm that Democrats are headed for defeat in November if they don’t nominate a candidate who can cut into Trump’s advantage with the economy.

“No question that after this week, there’s a real threat that Donald Trump can get reelected,” Steyer said.

Both Sanders and Buttigieg are coming under intense fire from their rivals, who are warning that a socialist and a young, relatively inexperienced mayor will get crushed by Trump in the general election.

However, Sanders has pointed to the spike in youth turnout in Iowa and made the case that Democrats need his coalition of energized young people, working-class voters and those who are new to the political process to defeat Trump.

At the famed Politics and Eggs forum this week in Manchester, N.H., Massachusetts businessman Lenny Glynn, a Democrat, told Sanders he’s worried that if the Vermont senator is nominated, then the U.S. election results will mirror the British election results, where Labour Party nominee Jeremy Corbyn “took them to the worst defeat they’ve had in half a century.”

Sanders conceded that Trump is going to be difficult to defeat.

“Is Trump going to be an easy opponent? No,” he responded. “He’s going to be a difficult opponent for a whole lot of reasons.”

Buttigieg, meanwhile, has made the generational case, arguing that it’s time to “turn the page” on the old way of doing things in Washington. The small-town Midwest mayor has said that the best anecdote to Trump is to nominate a candidate who intimately knows the plight of working-class voters in the American heartland.

In Keene, N.H., upward of 1,000 voters from across the state and New England gathered at a Buttigieg rally at Keene State College. 

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While a number of the attendees said they were still undecided, they were united in their concern that the eventual candidate needs to meet the criteria of being able to defeat Trump.

Vermont voter Margaret Burton, who is undecided but traveled just over the state border to hear what Buttigieg had to say, said she could see Buttigieg holding his own in a head-to-head battle with Trump. 

“He’s so smart. I like that he doesn’t get flustered,” she said. “I think he could stand up to a debate with Trump.” 

Even the lower-tier candidates are having to answer the question of whether they have what it takes to go up against the president.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickIt's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden Andrew Yang endorses Biden in 2020 race MORE, who is polling low in New Hampshire despite his status as a former New England governor, got the question at an intimate meeting with members of the Islamic Society of New Hampshire in Manchester on Friday. 

“The only candidate I want is one that can beat Donald Trump,” a member of the mosque told Patrick. “You’re my ideal candidate, but can you assure us?”

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"You’re right. Everyone is focused on beating Donald Trump, and that is the first order of business," Patrick replied. "Interestingly, beating Donald Trump isn’t just up to the candidate; it’s up to all of us."

New Hampshire voters feel another layer of anxiety after the Iowa caucuses failed to produce a clear winner. And while the Granite State is often overlooked as a battleground, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump escalates fight against mail-in voting Sunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase The Electoral College is not democratic — nor should it be MORE carried the state by only about 3,000 votes in 2016, and the Trump campaign is eager to flip it into the GOP column.

The first order of business, Democrats say, is to move beyond impeachment and the partisan battles in Washington to hammer home an economic message about how electing Democrats will make people’s lives better.

Guy Cecil — the chairman of Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy organization — has been warning that the general election will be very, very close. In a memo released this week, he urged Democrats to move on from impeachment and to focus on lowering prescription drug costs, expanding access to health care and protecting entitlement programs.

“If Democrats don’t do a better job of putting them front and center, we will lose a very winnable election to Donald Trump,” Cecil said. 

Still, many Democrats are bullish about their chances of beating Trump, with everyone agreeing that Democrats will rally around their eventual nominee, whoever it is. 

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They think Trump will have a hard time expanding his base of support and insist they won’t be caught flat-footed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as they were in 2016.

But in the back of their minds, Democrats acknowledge that Trump has shown surprising strength in the face of persistent controversy — and he has a record of winning.

“I wouldn’t say I’m anxious,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who has a decades-long tradition of traveling to New Hampshire for the primary. “But I have the jitters.”