MANCHESTER, New Hampshire, Feb 10 (Reuters) - For the past year, Democratic voters have been anxious to settle on a savior capable of defeating President Donald Trump.
The first week of primary balloting was supposed to speed the winnowing of an outsized field of candidates and showcase Democrats readiness to take back the White House in November. But an embarrassing meltdown in the Iowa caucus vote count, and a dismal showing by Joe Biden, once seen as the safest choice to unseat the Republican incumbent, have only heightened fears among some Democrats that their party isnt up to the task.
The early strength of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the liberal stalwart who has vowed to upend American healthcare and go after corporations and the wealthy, has some voters worried that Democrats will blow their chance to unseat an unpopular president if the party veers too far to the left.
Tuesdays New Hampshire primary may do little to dispel the collective unease or help bridge the deep ideological split between the partys liberal and moderate wings. Several recent polls showed the top two vote-getters in Iowa - Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg - as the favorites in New Hampshire.
While the primary season is young, voters such as Millie LaFontaine are already feeling a touch of panic. Interviewed Saturday at a Biden rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, the 69-year-old said she wants to back the candidate best-positioned to knock off Trump, but she isnt sure who that might be.
Id like to vote strategically, but we Democrats are in disarray and I dont know what strategic is, she said. I am afraid.
GOP UNITED, DEMS DIVIDED
Adding to the partys jitters, last week was one of the brightest in Trumps three years in office. His impeachment trial ended in acquittal. The economy continued churning out jobs. A Gallup poll showed 49% of all registered voters surveyed approve of his performance, the highest mark of his presidency including an overwhelming 94% of Republicans.
Meanwhile, results in Iowa showed that Democratic voters appear far from a consensus.
After leading in the polls for virtually the entire campaign pre-season, the 77-year-old Biden limped to a fourth-place finish in the caucus. It was a blow to Democratic traditionalists who consider the avuncular former vice president the surest bet to unite the fractious party and defeat Trump.
The strong performance of Buttigieg, the youngest candidate at 38, has boosted his profile as a centrist alternative to Biden. He is projected to have won 14 delegates, two more than Sanders. But polls show he has not attracted much support from black voters, a cornerstone of the diverse Democratic coalition. And some worry America isnt ready to elect an openly gay president.
Adding to the uncertainty is an ascendant Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York who has positioned himself as a moderate who can win independents and Republicans. Bloomberg is skipping the four early voting states in February but is competing from March 3, known as Super Tuesday, when nearly a third of delegates will be awarded from 14 states, including Texas and California.
After spending more than a quarter-billion dollars nationwide on advertising since November, Bloomberg has surged to third place behind Biden and Sanders, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll conducted Jan. 29-30.
Sanders, 78, won the most votes in Iowas complicated caucus system. The independent senator boasts a large grassroots network that is passionate about his calls for transformational change. But his candidacy terrifies many moderates, who believe a self-described democratic socialist stands no chance in a general election.
Trump already has seized upon the label, saying during last weeks State of the Union address that America will never be a socialist country.
Sanders backers contend he is the only candidate capable of bringing out young people and others who normally wouldnt vote. While there is evidence that Sanders did pull in more young voters in Iowa, overall turnout was significantly below record numbers posted in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama rode a wave of enthusiasm to the White House. That casts doubt on Sanders argument that his brand of left-wing populism can inspire enough new voters to defeat Trump, said Rahm Emanuel, Obamas former chief of staff and the ex-mayor of Chicago.
There wasnt this magic army that materialized in Iowa, Emanuel said. The cavalry wasnt coming.
The Democrats rough week began with a debacle in the Iowa vote count, caused in part by the failure of a ballot-tabulating phone app. Days of delays in announcing the totals drew mockery from Trump and, ultimately, a call from Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to re-canvass all the precinct results.
Were a party in chaos, Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democratic congresswoman from Ohio, told Politico.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell called the bungled count a fiasco.
We dont look very good when one of our biggest arguments against Donald Trump is that hes incompetent, and every day something happens where we screw something up, Rendell, a Biden supporter and former DNC chair, told Reuters.
Others worry the party will fail to capitalize on Republican vulnerabilities on issues such as healthcare if the eventual nominee backs solutions perceived as too radical by middle-of-the-road voters.
Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren favor Medicare for All, a universal government system that would eventually replace private health insurance. Biden, Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar want to improve the existing system and add a public option for those who want it.
Voter Chris Kane is weighing his options. The 65-year-old ecologist from Concord, New Hampshire likes Klobuchar, but hes open to backing Warren, the choice of his wife Eve Oyer. The couple attended a Warren event at a middle school over the weekend, while their son Ben Kane, 32, came up from New York to canvass for Sanders.
Whats the right decision?," said the elder Kane on Sunday. "Its complicated.
CULLING THE HERD
Sanders backers point to their candidates momentum, both in votes and fundraising, as evidence his proposals are catching fire. The campaign said it raised $25 million in January, most of it small donations from 648,000 people.
New Hampshire resident Anne Lichtener views Sanders anti-establishment credentials as an advantage in winning back blue-collar voters who defected to Trump in 2016.
Bernie probably appeals to the working class more than any other candidate, said the 28-year-old lab manager, who lives in Enfield.
The Buttigieg camp, meanwhile, is looking to pick off Biden donors following the former vice presidents flop in Iowa, according to a Buttigieg fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
People who were for Biden were for him because they thought he could win. Thats no longer the case, the person said.
On Sunday, in a jam-packed hotel ballroom along the New Hampshire seacoast, Biden told supporters to keep the faith.
No matter what happens in this state...Im going to keep moving, Biden said, predicting he will perform well in states with a greater number of African-Americans and other voters of color.
Like Iowa, New Hampshire is overwhelmingly white. Nevada, which has a large Latino population, and South Carolina, with a heavy concentration of black voters, are next on the primary calendar this month.
With the prospect that several viable candidates will roll on into the spring, the race could remain undecided for months perhaps even to the opening of the nominating convention in July in Milwaukee.
Democratic voters are buckling in for what some fear will be a rough ride.
Barry Nestor, a Biden supporter in Milford, New Hampshire, said he is particularly worried about Trumps socialists tag sticking to the partys liberal candidates.
Trump is going to go after them, Nestor said. Its just not going to be good. (Reporting by Joseph Ax, Trevor Hunnicutt, Simon Lewis, Michael Martina, James Oliphant and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by Joe Tanfani; Editing by Marla Dickerson)