Trotting to the stage in signature aviator sunglasses, former vice president Joe Biden elicited nostalgia and made the case for unifying the country on the Keene State College quad Saturday morning.
More than 400 voters stood shoulder to shoulder along Appian Way in partial shade to see the candidate speak, according to the campaign’s count from a city fire official.
Biden, who remains the front-runner across early state and national polling in his third bid for the presidency, made the case for a more secure American future by returning to the political norms in place before 2016.
Although Biden continued to underscore his firm belief that he is the best candidate to beat President Donald Trump, he refrained from overly criticizing the president out of respect for a long-standing norm as Trump arrived in France Saturday for the G7 summit.
“There’s a lot of things I could say about his foreign policy, but he’s overseas, and I never make it a habit of criticizing a president when they’re overseas,” Biden told The Sentinel in an interview after the rally. “But, I had a lot more to say yesterday, and I’ll have a lot more to say when he comes home.”
Voters from the Monadnock Region were joined by others who made the trip from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York eager to see Biden.
On Friday, Biden held a town hall at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
Attendees at Saturday’s event in Keene recalled Obama-Biden nostalgia before Saturday’s event started, while others said they wanted to size up Biden while considering other options ahead of the February primary.
Denis Dubois, a 67-year-old Keene retiree, said Biden was the first 2020 candidate he has seen. After volunteering for President Obama’s two presidential campaigns, Dubois said he likes Biden at this early stage, but is also weighing options.
“I have a group [of candidates to consider],” Dubois said. “It’s helping that the field is narrowing.”
To Dubois’ right in the handicap accessible seating area was Stephanie Franco of Charlestown, 51, who works for New Hope New Horizons.
Franco was also at her first 2020 campaign event of the cycle, and said Biden is her favorite because of his cross-appeal to beat Trump and his record in the Obama White House.
“Biden right now is my favorite, to be honest with you,” Franco said. “To be honest, everybody I’ve talked to — friends, family, everybody — they just want a Democrat in office. Somebody that’s going to actually care about our country and not make these stupid tweets.”
While many Keene State students were occupied with freshman orientation activities, some younger voters made their way to campus — even if they won’t be able to vote this time around.
Mason Foard, 16, of West Chesterfield and Rei Kimura, 15, of Brattleboro said they came to see Biden out of an intense interest in political participation and to hear his views on climate change.
“I can’t vote in the primary, but I can vote in the general election, so obviously I’m going to vote Democratic,” Foard said. “But it’s interesting to me, especially since he was the vice president.”
“I can’t even vote next year, but I’m just interested in getting a better idea of the political candidates,” Kimura added.
Kimura and Foard were joined by Graciana Childs, 18, of Dummerston, Vt.
Childs, who plans to attend Wesleyan University after taking a gap year, said she invited two friends to the Keene State rally.
“I like him, but,” Childs said of Biden before her voice trailed off.
The “but,” she said, had to do with questions about Biden’s age. He’s 76.
“I want someone to be on the younger side, like even Biden is kind of on the older side,” she said. “Same with Bernie. I love Bernie, but I think it should be someone younger in office.”
Childs also said she likes Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, but added that her age, 70, was problematic, too.
“I just want somebody that can beat Trump,” Foard said, echoing similar sentiments from other voters in attendance.
For Biden, age and fitness for office are appropriate questions, he said, just as they were when he was running to represent Delaware in the U.S. Senate not long after leaving his 20s in 1972.
However, the seasoned politician argued that his experience remains one of his best assets, particularly in his campaign’s focus of restoring America’s standing on the world stage amid Trump’s tumultuous relationships with longtime allies.
When asked to name the greatest threat to the United States aside from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, Biden responded by citing what he sees as a diminished American reputation abroad.
“And as president, this is in my wheelhouse,” Biden told The Sentinel. “I know all of these world leaders. I’ve dealt with them extensively. We have to bring them back together. We have to let them know that the United States is here. The United States can be relied on. Our word is still good.”
Following up on a portion of his speech in which he warned of increasing indications of a recession, Biden tried to thread the needle.
On the one hand, Biden argued that Trump has benefited from a steadily growing economy thanks to the Obama administration’s handling of the last recession and financial crisis. However, Biden also pointed to Trump’s tariffs, his tweets and his tax cuts as sources of uncertainty and fiscal recklessness in the economy.
Despite his case for Trump’s mishandling of the economy, Biden remained optimistic.
“He is causing great uncertainty in the markets, in large part, because of his behavior,” Biden said of Trump. “And so I hope that his team is able to rectify this and avoid a recession. It’s not inevitable, in my view.”
Biden’s optimism also holds onto the central premise of his campaign: “Restoring the soul of this country.”
When asked if such an effort is still possible — or if a polarized nation is beyond return — Biden’s jovial, happy warrior demeanor turned deadly serious.
“If it’s gone, we’re dead,” Biden said. “If it’s gone, it’s over — I wanna make it real clear: If the soul of the nation is gone, if we walk away from the basic tenet of American democracy, we are in deep, deep trouble. And that’s what will happen if there’s four more years of Donald Trump.”
Biden said Americans “need to start talking to one another again. We’ve gotta stop pitting people on race, religion, ethnicity against one another.”
The reason he is best equipped to catalyze that, Biden said, is because Americans know him well and they know his character, even if the country has changed rapidly since he last ran for office.
“The fact of the matter is, Biden said, “that the good news is the bad news and the bad news is the good news. I’m known by 94, 95 percent of the American people, and I also think that we also have been able to generate some enthusiasm.”
Biden said his team is approaching 50 full-time staffers in New Hampshire and looking to open up more field offices.
A meeting of the minds was also held prior to the rally, with notable local figures given special wristbands to meet with Biden, including Keene Mayor Kendall Lane and Cheshire County Democrats Chairman Carl DeMatteo.
Before heading over to Lindy’s Diner to mingle with voters, Biden took selfies with just about anyone who wished at the end of the Keene State rally. That lasted for more than an hour. Franco scored a selfie and a conventional pose with Biden.
Many voters leaving the event generally expressed excitement at having been able to see Biden, and perhaps get to know him better.
For Linda Schechterle, a 76-year-old retired teacher from Leyden, Mass., questions about Biden’s age were assuaged by his performance; she said the trip was worth it.
“He looks tireless as ever,” she said after pulling up her selfie with Biden.
HANCOCK — Standing before a sea of “Mayor Pete” signs and “Boot Edge Edge” shirts — a reminder of how his name is pronounced — Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg sported his characteristic white button-down with rolled sleeves and jeans here Saturday morning.
The mayor of South Bend, Ind., stood on a small stage in front of a red barn with an American flag backdrop. He was introduced by Eleanor Cochrane, who hosted the event with her husband, Doug, and former gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Molly Kelly, who told the 400-plus attendees that she was raised in Indiana not far from South Bend.
Buttigieg, 37, thanked Kelly for her remarks.
“I can’t help but reflect on what’s happening right now with all of the wonderful legislation being passed here in New Hampshire, and then not getting past the governor’s desk,” he said, referring to Gov. Chris Sununu’s string of vetoes this summer, including the state budget. “It makes me think of what it would be like if we had a forward-looking governor in the state of New Hampshire.”
After unveiling his mental health plan Friday, Buttigieg spent a chunk of his 45-minute speech touching on some of its details, as well as health care in rural areas specifically. He noted that life expectancy has diverged during the past three decades for Americans in urban cities versus smaller communities.
“Where you live should not dictate how long you live,” he said. “You should be able to get health care wherever you are, and we can do something about that. We can do something about the closure of hospitals and the loss of providers of health care in rural areas.”
Buttigieg’s plan includes increasing reimbursements and student loan repayments to incentivize providers to work in under-served areas.
“Now, step one if we get to any of the policies, is to bring it out of the shadows,” he said.
The mayor asked those in the crowd to raise their hands if they know someone affected by mental illness or addiction; nearly all hands went up.
“So let’s stop talking about this as a specialty issue and allow it to sit on the margins,” he said. “This is all of us. All of us are affected. … And yet we have far too few providers of mental health services, and far too few ways to get there.”
His plan would require insurance companies to cover mental health just the same as physical health, he said, along with building a core of providers.
Tackling the issue includes simple solutions, he said, such as creating a three-digit number for the suicide hotline to make it easier to remember and quicker to dial.
But it also involves more complicated strategies, he said, such as training teachers and law enforcement in mental health first aid.
“... Because unfortunately they are too often the front lines of mental health, and too often a jail is the closest thing to a provider that somebody ever sees,” the candidate said. “We gotta fix that, but we’ve also gotta make sure that those front line people know what to do when they encounter these symptoms and encounter these problems.”
Along with supporting medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders, Buttigieg’s proposal calls for an end to suicide and other “deaths of despair” by giving funding to communities to find creative solutions to bring people together.
“We have a crisis of belonging in this country,” he said.
His plan would also aim to boost telehealth and telepsychiatry — a way to meet with a doctor remotely with a video platform similar to Skype.
In a brief interview after the event, Buttigieg acknowledged that states like New Hampshire with rural communities might find telehealth inaccessible without high-speed Internet. He pointed to his plan to lift rural economies, which includes $80 billion to get every American connected, preferably via fiber optic networks.
In the meantime, he said, his reimbursements program would help finance hubs in communities where people could go to keep them from traveling as far as they have to for a traditional doctor.
During the mayor’s speech, Monty Montano shielded his eyes from the sun with his copy of Buttigieg’s autobiography, “Shortest Way Home.”
Montano lives in Boston but has a home in Hancock. He explained after the event that he began reading the book earlier this year and was drawn to Buttigieg’s stories of people helping others. He was one of 850 people who crowded into a theater in Somerville, Mass., to hear Buttigieg speak, and Montano said he became a supporter.
Noting his own background in academia, he said he appreciates the mayor’s data-driven and rational approach that’s also humanistic.
“I also felt his reframing the narrative of spirituality hit home,” Montano said.
Buttigieg said during his speech that “God does not belong to a political party. We honor the fact that we all come from different faith traditions, and I will be a president who speaks for people of any religion and people of no religion equally.”
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Montano said he hopes Buttigieg will continue his political career on a national level, whether it’s as president, vice president or some other capacity.
Some attendees weren’t ready to commit their support.
Married couple Peter and Susie Toumanoff of Hancock said they’re still shopping around for their candidate of choice.
They went to the Hillsborough County Democrats’ Summer Picnic last weekend in Greenfield, where seven other presidential hopefuls delivered condensed versions of their stump speeches. Peter saw Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren of Massachusetts in Peterborough, and the couple has also met with representatives from the campaign for Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
“There’s a lot of candidates out there and they have different strengths,” Peter said.
He credited Buttigieg for his intellect, composure and oratory skills, which he said are reminiscent of Barack Obama.
But Peter Toumanoff said he’s made the comment to friends: “I wish he were a black female.” Racial and gender equality need to be addressed, he said, indicating that should be done on the ballot.
He lamented that Warren’s proposals aren’t as moderate as Buttigieg’s, which Peter said would accomplish Democratic goals in a realistic way.
“I’m looking for a package that can win the White House, but the Senate, too,” he said.
Susie Toumanoff agreed that Buttigieg’s plans seem more palpable to wider audiences, especially to people who might be resistant to major changes. Calling him unflappable, she said she enjoyed seeing him, though she’s still undecided who she’ll support.
If she had her way, she said, she’d vote a black woman into the Oval Office. But, she added, “I desperately want the administration to change.”