Shribman: Biden picks his way across N.H.'s rocky political terrain

Associated PressDemocratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the National Urban League Conference, July 25, in Indianapolis.

“A man stands there as an ant might stand on the edge of a huge tureen.”

-- Renowned 19th-century theologian Starr King, speaking of Mount Washington in 1860

PINKHAM NOTCH, New Hampshire -- The peaks here are treacherous. Seasoned hikers have stumbled on their paths across the Presidential Range. Many of them have fallen. So, too, have political front-runners.

This perspective on New Hampshire’s faraway White Mountain fastnesses should give Joseph R. Biden Jr. a case of vice-presidential vertigo.

At lower altitudes, where the Delawarean dwells, Biden has cultivated a deep sense of political history. He first ran for the White House in 1988 but withdrew before he even reached New Hampshire, then as now the site of the first presidential primary. He tried it again a dozen years ago and attracted only 638 votes here. Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, no one’s idea of a serious presidential candidate, won six times as many votes as Biden, who had far better experience and a far shinier reputation. Hillary Clinton, who won the contest, gathered nearly 20 times as many votes.

So Biden, who hasn’t visited this state for five weeks, does not enter the contest here with even a trace of self-confidence. He knows what happened in this rugged state to three front-runners whose names the world has forgotten (Barry Goldwater, Edmund S. Muskie and Walter F. Mondale) and to seven famous figures, front-runners all, who were humbled here (Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton).

“More people die in New Hampshire than win,” said Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who performed the unusual feat of winning by losing. He mortified President Johnson by coming in a strong second in 1968, beating expectations and contributing to LBJ’s decision later that month to withdraw from the race.

In all, within Biden’s living memory, eight front-runners have met defeat in the snowy hills and gritty old mill towns here. Only three recovered to win the White House. None was as prominent, accomplished or persistent as Biden, a national political figure for nearly a half-century.

No less an authority than former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a top Donald Trump lawyer once considered the 2008 GOP nomination front-runner, learned the perils of presidential politics the hard way. “There is a reality to the primary process, and you don’t win primaries by being ahead in national polls,” he said. “You win them by winning Iowa, by winning New Hampshire.”

Giuliani came in fourth here that year, a humiliating finish that years later prompted Corey Lewandowski, a onetime Trump campaign manager now planning a Senate campaign in New Hampshire, to assert: “Candidates ignore New Hampshire at their own peril. You all remember President Giuliani? He’s done a great job in the White House.”

Front-runner status puts a presidential contender firmly in the sights of all his rivals, and in a field with as many as two dozen candidates, that can mean attacks from all sides. Biden has been the direct target of debate challenges from Sen. Kamala Harris of California (on school busing), Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey (on criminal justice), former Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro (on immigration), and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington (on the Iraq War). Last week Trump chimed in helpfully, saying, “Joe is not playing with a full deck.”

All this puts Biden in the uncomfortable situation faced by Presidents Truman (1952) and Johnson (1968), attacked here for their policies in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, respectively, and by Sens. Muskie (1972) and Dole (1996), pilloried here for not being liberal or conservative enough, respectively. Like Johnson, Muskie prevailed but was punished for a victory margin that was smaller than expected. It didn’t help that he was singled out for opprobrium by William Loeb, the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper.

Biden’s challenge also mirrors that of Mondale in 1984, when an earlier former vice president was criticized (by Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. of Ohio) for being the captive of special interests, especially labor “bosses” and “kingpins,” and (by Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado) for being the prisoner of stale ideas.

“I figured I won Iowa and would go into New Hampshire with a strong tailwind,” Mondale, who did not seal up the nomination until the last week of the primaries, said in a conversation Wednesday. “They’re quirky up there. They have their own way of doing things and their own way of thinking. They don’t want to do what the rest of the nation seems to want to do and topple a front-runner. This could happen again.”

In 1952, Estes Kefauver upset Truman, who had dismissed the primary as “eyewash,” didn’t campaign in the state as much as one day, withdrew from the presidential race shortly thereafter, and argued for the rest of his life that he never intended to run for another term anyway.

New Hampshire is a political crucible, and not a kind one. “Should an incumbent be running, even a vice president, without our primary as a preliminary test,” former Gov. Hugh Gregg wrote in his classic 1990 account of the primary here, “odds would be insurmountable against his being effectively challenged elsewhere.”

So the latest front-runner to meet a Granite State test must take solace in the notion that being beaten up on the path to the summit here might toughen him up for the ultimate contest, against Trump.

Biden, whose forces organized a protest last Thursday to counter the rally Trump held in Manchester, could be back here as soon as Friday. For all his woes, and for all the woeful examples of front-runners upended here, he might take consolation in recalling these names: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sen. John F. Kennedy, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, former Gov. Jimmy Carter, former Gov. Ronald Reagan and Trump. Despite all the roots and rocks along the presidential trail in New Hampshire, all of them won the primary here as non-incumbents. Their likenesses will hang forever in the hall of presidents in the National Portrait Gallery.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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