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For N.H. Democrats, Bernie Sanders' Candidacy Isn't About A Victory, 'It's About A Choice'04:57

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Presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders reacts as supporters cheer him on at a house party in Manchester, New Hampshire, last weekend. (Cheryl Senter/AP)closemore
Presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders reacts as supporters cheer him on at a house party in Manchester, New Hampshire, last weekend. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

Picture a cozy, disheveled living room in Manchester. The home of an acupuncturist with a nose ring and a belt made of bottle caps.

And there in the middle of the room stands 73-year-old U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his usual rumpled white hair, delivering a 30 minute speech about progressive politics.

The self-described socialist from Vermont is a familiar face in New Hampshire, but it's generally accepted that this Democratic presidential hopeful has very little chance of winning the election. He's a long shot, but a long shot with the potential to shake up the race.

"We have a grotesque level of income inequality, in which the billionaire class is getting it all," Sanders told the crowd of about 100 last weekend. "Enough is enough. They can’t get it all."

Some in the room are munching on bacon wrapped dates and yell out when Sanders hits a particularly populist note.

"What we have got to do is raise the federal minimum wage from a starvation wage of seven and a quarter to a living wage," he said to applause.

Sanders' message is a liberal catchall that touches on climate change, income inequality and universal health care.

Anne Coughlin came from Concord to hear Sanders speak. She's a fan, but she has some reservations.

"It’s kind of like a head and heart kind of struggle. My heart agrees with everything he said, but I want a candidate who can win nationally."

Anne Coughlin, of Concord

"It’s kind of like a head and heart kind of struggle," she explained. "My heart agrees with everything he said, but I want a candidate who can win nationally."

And the candidate she's referring to is Hillary Clinton.

In fact, some folks at this Sanders shindig are Clinton supporters, they just want to nudge her further to the left, especially on economic issues. Pam Lessard is sitting on one of the few sofa seats at the party.

"I’m learning toward Hillary but I think Bernie Sanders has a very important point of view to incorporate into Hillary’s campaign," Lessard said. "The country would benefit from giving him a larger platform."

Just a six minute drive away is a more suburban neighborhood with larger homes and manicured lawns, where Clinton's team was hosting its own grassroots house party. Clinton wasn't there, but lots of her supporters were.

And some, like Debra Brown, say the more Democrats in this race the better.

"I kind of hate that fact that she’s being anointed," Brown said. "I think that’s a bad thing for the party. I think a little competition is healthy."

In fact, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala says there's an argument that a Sanders candidacy helps Clinton.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord in April. (Allegra Boverman for NHPR)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord in April. (Allegra Boverman for NHPR)

"He gives Hillary Clinton someone to fight against," Scala said, noting that there are some 20 Clinton staffers in New Hampshire looking for something to do. "They’re looking for a way to sharpen their ground operation, and there’s no better way to do that than against some kind of opponent."

The thinking is that Sanders will help polish Clinton for a general election and galvanize the Democratic base. But it could also poke holes in her campaign.

"Would I vote for her in the end against 98.9 percent of the Republicans so far that are running? More likely than not, yes. But that doesn’t say that it’s a good choice," said Arnie Arnesen, a former Democratic state representative and gubernatorial nominee who now hosts a talk radio show about politics.

Arnesen is a progressive liberal. She’s welcomed Sanders into her home before, but she also knows Clinton and says she's not endorsing any candidate yet.

Arnesen says in 2008 she felt "comfortable" with Clinton, but now she has an encyclopedia of questions for the former secretary of state — about emails and finances.

“It is more than Bernie. It is about a choice. A democracy doesn’t flourish if it’s an anointment."

Arnie Arnesen, a former state representative

"We have a different Hillary Clinton than we did in 2008, which is why a lot of progressives are frightened without a field," Arnesen said. "Not even that the field will win, but that the field has to exist for the conversation to happen."

Sanders may not be a viable candidate, but Arnesen says that's besides the point.

"It is more than Bernie. It is about a choice. A democracy doesn't flourish if it’s an anointment," she said.

Democrats in New Hampshire say a contested Democratic primary will influence the conversation on both sides of the aisle.

Rebecca Sananes contributed to this story.

Related:

Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid was formerly a reporter at WBUR.

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