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Joe Biden faces threat to his re-election hopes in ‘graveyard of Democratic presidents’

Dean Phillips on the campaign trail in New Hampshire this week
Dean Phillips was on the campaign trail in New Hampshire this week - CHARLES KRUPA/AP

New Hampshire has a track record of being a political graveyard for incumbent Democratic presidents.

In 1952, Harry Truman scrapped his re-election campaign within weeks of losing the New Hampshire primary to Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. And in 1968 Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race after being run uncomfortably close by Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy – a result that persuaded Bobby Kennedy to enter the fray.

Next week, another Minnesota politician, Congressman Dean Phillips, is looking to bring down another unpopular Democratic president, Joe Biden.

Mr Phillips’s chances of winning next week’s primary are slim, but a strong showing could wound Mr Biden and lure some Democrat big-hitters into the race belatedly.

It is a result that the Democratic National Committee is dreading. Not least because it would leave the party facing a logistical nightmare as it scrambles to choose another candidate in time.

More than 20 states have already passed the deadline for candidates to enter their primaries and several more will do so over the next couple of weeks.

There are signs Mr Phillips will do better than many expect, especially with Mr Biden only being a “write-in” candidate.

While registered Democrats heavily back the president, Mr Phillips leads Mr Biden by 14 per cent among undeclared voters.

And with New Hampshire being “open primary” – meaning independents and even Republicans can vote – this could prove significant.

“Phillips is doing better now than people expected,” said Dick Bennett, who has been polling New Hampshire since 1976.

“I think likely voters in the primary view him as a legitimate candidate who could be the nominee.

“Joe Biden has never done very well in the New Hampshire primary. Say Biden gets 70 per cent of registered Democrats and Phillips gets 30 per cent, it will send a message.”

Crowds at Mr Phillips’s events are getting larger. A few months ago, only a couple of dozen bothered to turn up at a seniors’ centre. On Friday, it was standing room only at the University of New Hampshire.

Mr Phillips is optimistic. “This is just the beginning. This country has such an appetite for optimism and I am going to serve it on a silver platter.”

Dean Phillips meets votes in New Hampshire
Dean Phillips has seen attendances growing at his campaign events and says there is an 'appetite for optimism' - CHARLES KRUPA/AP

Jeff Weaver, a seasoned Democratic operative who is working on the Phillips campaign, has noticed the change.

“Public polling has consistently shown us going up week after week after week, and it becomes impossible at some point to ignore us as much as some of the media has tried,” he told The Telegraph.

“Well, the aim here is to demonstrate what the polling has consistently been showing us – that Democrats want another option rather than President Biden.

“Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama got over 80 per cent in New Hampshire. I’m sure President Biden will do much less well than that.”

There are signs that the Democratic hierarchy has been rattled.

Party chiefs have decreed New Hampshire will no longer be “the first in the nation” to hold its primary, and delegates from the Granite State will not be seated at the convention.

Americans ‘desperately want an alternative’

“There has been skulduggery all over the country,” Mr Weaver added. “What people don’t see is the much wider kind of damage that has been done to democracy by establishment Democrats. Somehow they believe that the way we save democracy is by practising less of it and I think that’s misguided at best.”

Andrew Yang, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020, has thrown his weight behind Mr Phillips and is blunt about the challenge the party faces.

“The fact is you have a deeply unpopular 81-year-old incumbent,” he told The Telegraph.

“Americans desperately want an alternative when they realise they have a tremendous choice in Dean Phillips, who’s a three-term member of Congress from Minnesota, a state that I think people associate with reasonableness.”

Mr Phillips entered the race in the hope of persuading better-known Democrats to throw their hat into the ring. With nobody sticking their head above the parapet, his mantra now is that he is “in it to win it”.

But a strong showing could change things next week and, albeit belatedly, see better-known names enter the race, Mr Yang added.

“Courage is contagious. I think if Dean demonstrates to Democrats that Americans want to move on from Joe Biden, then other candidates will test the water,” he said.

Christopher Galdieri, professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, believes a strong showing by Mr Phillips would ring alarm bells.

But, sounding a note of caution, he added: “The next primary is in South Carolina, which saved Joe Biden in 2020.”

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