In the waning hours before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation US primary voting begins, Democratic presidential candidates took varied approaches to the expectations game as they look to advance deeper into what could be an extended nominating fight.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders showed the same confidence he displayed ahead of last week's Iowa caucuses, which ended with a split decision with former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. "If we win here tomorrow, I think we've got a path to victory for the Democratic nomination," Sanders declared in Rindge.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden, once the national front-runner, tamped down expectations amid prospects of a second consecutive disappointment before the race turns to more racially diverse states he believes can restore his contender status. "This is just getting started," he told CBS.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren fell somewhere between those approaches, vowing to make a comeback but not predicting victory. "Look, I've been counted down and out for much of my life," Warren told reporters. "You get knocked down. You get back up."
Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, the biggest surprises of the 2020 contest so far, looked to extend their rides despite uncertainty about what's ahead for two campaigns with overwhelmingly white bases.
The scramble highlights a perilous point for Democrats as they look for a challenger to US President Donald Trump in November.
No would-be nominee has yet forged a strong coalition across the party's racial, ethnic and ideological factions.
The situation is muddled further by the vote-tabulation melee in last week's Iowa caucuses that left both Sanders and Buttigieg claiming victory, even as neither reached 30 per cent of the vote in a fractured field.
Trump, eager to cast a shadow over the entire Democratic slate, tried to rattle his opponents with a rally in Manchester, continuing his victory-and-vengeance tour following Senate votes that acquitted him on two impeachment charges.
Trump boasted about the nation's strong economy, tore into his possible general election foes and launched an assault on the Democrats who tried to remove him from office, calling the episode a "pathetic partisan crusade."
"Our good Republicans in the United States Senate voted to reject the outrageous partisan impeachment hoax and to issue a full, complete and absolute total acquittal," Trump told a crowd that roared and cheered throughout his speech. "And it wasn't even close."
Trump lost New Hampshire in 2016 by fewer than 3000 votes out of more than 743,000 cast, and the state is among several his re-election campaign believes it can flip in November.
Today Biden insisted that he remains well-positioned for the nomination and to defeat Trump in November.
He pointed to endorsements from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Michigan's legislative black caucus that he's gotten since the Iowa caucuses. "I'm still leading nationally," Biden told CBS, referring to months of national polls. It's far from certain, though, that Biden will remain in such a position in the coming weeks.
Biden's fortunes could turn on voters like Pat Barrick, a 70-year-old independent who said she was once solidly with Biden but now is also considering Klobuchar, who finished just behind Biden in Iowa and has since seen a bounce in New Hampshire.
"He matches my values," Barrick said of Biden. "I just don't know if he can win."
Indeed, no Democrats have separated themselves from the pack.
Sanders and Buttigieg want to dent Biden's claims to national support. But Sanders, a democratic socialist, has little support from the party's centre-left core, and some establishment figures openly fret about Sanders leading the ticket in November.
Buttigieg keyed in on the Vermont senator's ambitious "Medicare for All" proposal as being among plans that are fiscally unmanageable.
Describing his own healthcare proposal as having "the virtue of being paid for" by repealing tax cuts enacted by Trump and imposing taxes on corporations that pay none, Buttigieg said, "While Senator Sanders' ideals are certainly ideals I think most Americans share, at the end of the day we're going to have to explain how to get from here to there."
"And there's a hole in his proposals that amounts to US$25 trillion, bigger than the entire size of the American economy," Buttigieg told more than 500 people in swing-voting Milford.
At a packed Exeter town hall, Klobuchar trumpeted her rising poll numbers and the US$3 million she has raised online since Saturday's debate. She saved her best jabs, as she often does, for Trump and refused to go after any of the other Democrats by name.
"He blames Barack Obama. He blames the generals that he commands," Klobuchar said.
"He blames the head of the Federal Reserve that he appointed. He blames the energy secretary that he nominated. He blames — this is one of my favourite ones — the entire Kingdom of Denmark. Who does that?"
Warren, who has shown flashes of a broad coalition of voters, has added a relatively new argument in New Hampshire by pitching herself as the candidate who can best unify the party. She is looking to slice off chunks of Sanders' progressive base and Buttigieg's core of college-educated voters hungry for change. But she and Biden face a potential money crunch if donors are spooked by tomorrow's results.
Beyond New Hampshire, billionaire Michael Bloomberg continues ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into "Super Tuesday" states on March 3 while skipping the first four February contests. Bloomberg's centrist candidacy hinges largely on Biden underperforming and the proposition that neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar can fill the gap.
His campaign today announced new staff investments in Utah and Colorado, bringing his national footprint to 2,100 staffers, with 18 states boasting at least 40 employees.
Despite the questions facing the Democratic field, New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley said he remains optimistic about their chances of toppling Trump, even going so far as to welcome the President's visit.
"His ego can't stand the idea of something going on and he's not in the middle of it," Buckley told reporters. "It has backfired on him before, and I believe it's going to backfire on him this time."