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Joe Manchin could upend Biden’s reelection campaign – and blow up No Labels along the way

Sen. Joe Manchin says he “absolutely” can see himself as president.

Privately, the West Virginia Democrat has told people that a Joe Biden health scare or a Donald Trump conviction could give him an opening to run as an independent this year.

In public, during stops in states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Georgia, Manchin says he believes there’s a role for him as a national icon in the “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate” middle, comparable with the role Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders plays for the progressive left.

If Manchin runs, he would want to do so using state ballot lines being secured by No Labels, a bipartisan group that has asserted itself as the answer for a political moment in which voters keep telling pollsters they don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch and are exhausted by the political tribalism. The group has set a mid-March deadline to decide whether to back a presidential “unity ticket,” but with about a month and half to go and amid internal turmoil, multiple top No Labels leaders tell CNN they remain in the dark about the path forward.

Meanwhile, three years of exhaustion at Manchin upending Biden’s agenda has left the president and top aides keeping their distance, trying to sound out what he’s up to without risking riling him up by going to him directly. They hope Manchin will ultimately decide on his own against an independent run. But they know that a Democratic senator traveling the county warning that Biden has been pulled too far to the political left would be a problem, particularly as the president and his aides try to stitch back their 2020 coalition that ranged from Sanders supporters to anti-Trump Republicans.

Manchin is hoping to get a meeting with Biden to urge the president to change the way he’s campaigning – for example, to focus more on how inflation declined after the more fiscally constrained Inflation Reduction Act that he forced Biden to retrench; or to talk less about climate change and more about energy security.

Some around Biden agree Manchin may have a point in how to make the pitch. Nervously, though, they wish he would say it more quietly, and further from the campaign trail.

As Biden tries to assert the success of his presidency, Manchin says he shaped “everything” in the president’s agenda. In an interview with CNN as he drove in New Hampshire, Manchin said the country would have been worse off if he hadn’t used the 50-50 Senate to force Biden to do things his way, arguing, “The way it was presented and the way it ended up are two different things.”

Manchin called the president a “good, decent man” but said he worries about a second Biden term with a White House staff who he believes is dominated by a group of “far, far-left liberals.” He calls the prospect of a Trump return to the White House “very much concerning to every human being and every person who basically loves the country that we have, and the life that we have, and trying to have a future for our children and future generations.”

But he worries about polls that make him doubt whether Biden will get that second term.

One person familiar with his thinking argued this time is different from Manchin’s past flirtations that Washington insiders have gotten used to rolling their eyes at.

“He’s traveling the country. This is beyond (the) Beltway Bubble game,” the person said.

Turmoil at No Labels

In private conversations about his potential run, Manchin now speaks of No Labels – for which he was a founding co-chair in 2011 – in belittling terms as just “a ballot access organization.” Asked whether he would include any staff or other material from No Labels if he launches a campaign, Manchin demurred. Instead, he sees the group as just his latest target to bend to his way.

The group is already at odds over whether a Democrat or Republican should be at the top of a No Labels unity ticket. While some group leaders are adamant that they do not want a No Labels ticket to play spoiler in Trump’s favor, others have ducked questions on how they would avoid such a scenario.

Larry Hogan, the Republican former governor of Maryland, quit the No Labels board last month over frustration that power and information were being hoarded by group leadership – and not to, as reported elsewhere, clear the way for a presidential run of his own.

“It’s been far less organized than he expected it to be” and “he doesn’t see a plan coming together,” a person familiar with Hogan’s thinking told CNN. “You don’t know where this train is going, and you’re signing up for something you didn’t necessarily sign up for.”

Asked for his own assessment of the No Labels plan, Manchin told CNN on the road in New Hampshire as he kicked off a national tour, “I don’t think anybody knows. I think it’s changing day by day, hour by hour.”

Plans for a convention in Dallas have collapsed. Talk of a virtual convention remains ambiguous. Who would be picked as delegates to that convention is a mystery. Who would pick those delegates hasn’t been decided. The approximately dozen prospective candidates – including elected officials and business leaders – who will be presented as options are being kept secret, with the full list unknown even to some of the leaders. What information No Labels would use to inform its decision is up in the air. How decisions would be made to ensure candidates won’t be spoilers if they are put on a ticket hasn’t been figured out. Who would decide whether to potentially take the ballot lines back from a ticket, as the group says it will technically be able to do through the summer, is unclear.

What has become of the tens of millions of dollars the group announced plans to raise won’t be known for years – and multiple donors have felt betrayed, to the point that two filed a lawsuit against No Labels last week accusing the group of a bait-and-switch for using their money push a “third ticket option” in the presidential race.

“Eventually this will crystallize into a process,” said former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who serves as a No Labels co-chair.

“We will talk about the process at an appropriate time,” said former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who is on the No Labels board.

No Labels officials insist their plans will spike in popularity as more Americans wrap their heads around a likely Trump-Biden rematch. They have promoted a map showing a unity ticket in position to win up to 286 electoral votes across 39 states, including North Dakota, New York, Florida, Texas and Hawaii – enough to win the White House, or at least create a three-way split that throws the election to the House of Representatives. All of this is rooted in polling about Americans being generally dissatisfied with their existing 2024 options compiled by Mark Penn, the husband of No Labels founder and CEO Nancy Jacobson, who is seen as perhaps the one who could decide the answers to the outstanding questions.

In an interview, No Labels chief strategist Ryan Clancy said the group is preserving its options to be flexible. He pointed to Biden-supporting political opponents to explain why he would not divulge plan details, reasoning that he did not want to provide more fodder for attacks.

Clancy’s answers to specific questions about the plans included “We have plenty of latitude,” “We haven’t settled on the final details” and “We’re not releasing that.”

The only specifics No Labels has publicly disclosed of late is a complaint with the Justice Department alleging a “conspiracy” of activists and journalists is trying to intimidate the group and potential candidates out of a race. No Labels argues those actions are illegal because the group is not technically a campaign yet.

For months, Manchin has felt frustrated that No Labels was making moves without giving him a heads-up. Those moves included the announcement of the formation of a super PAC and comments from group officials that a Republican would be the best bet for the top of a No Labels ticket. Manchin also suspects that No Labels had a hand in a rumor that he and Chris Christie had kibitzed about teaming up for 2024 the night the former New Jersey governor dropped out of the Republican race. (An aide said they did not speak that night.)

Manchin went to New Hampshire in July last year under the No Labels banner to attend a town hall and promote their new agenda. On his trip earlier this month, the signs he was pointing to were for Americans Together, the new group started by his daughter, Heather Bresch, the former CEO of pharmaceutical giant Mylan, who has been hitting up the same donor base of largely business types who bemoan the state of politics over rounds at their high-priced clubs.

The mission of Americans Together, according to a clip art-style video Bresch played ahead of Manchin’s New Hampshire speech, is more like the original No Labels goal “to bring back compromise.” There is nothing about running for president. The same goes for a new group formed by former New York Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican No Labels board member, who says he wants to get back to the chasing of moderate solutions that No Labels used to do.

“As No Labels goes down that presidential path, we cannot lose what was gained in all these years trying to improve the institution of Congress,” Reed told CNN.

Hoping to be the middle’s Bernie Sanders

Manchin’s small team is so sure of his low name recognition outside of political obsessives and the small state where he has been an elected official for 42 years that they have chosen not to commission an internal poll, which they believe would demonstrate how much of an uphill battle a presidential run would be.

The senator says he believes he can appeal to many Americans by his positions on issues such as abortion: Though he has supported a 20-week federal limit on abortion, he now believes in codifying Roe v. Wade into law, arguing the best solution is to return to a status quo.

“No matter what side of the fence you might be on, where you are for philosophically, we learned to navigate that,” he told CNN. Manchin is anti-abortion personally but says the Supreme Court made a mistake when it overturned Roe v. Wade: “In the most divisive time in our country right now, when they’re trying to pull us further apart, why would you do something such as that?”

Asked whether the political middle wants an icon the way progressives have rallied behind Sanders, Machin leaned back and smiled as he drew out each word: “We’ll find out.”

Manchin is riding high on interactions with people he meets on his travels – like the ones he says stop him at airports; or the Trump voter from Texas selling hot sauce in New Hampshire, who stopped him in the Manchester Doubletree lobby to say thanks for the many times he felt like Manchin saved the country, though he couldn’t quite remember the specifics of how or when.

In a speech at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, Manchin covered most of what the hot sauce salesman forgot. His address was typically affable, low on specifics and full of conviction about his centrality to shaping pretty much everything out of Washington in the two years of a 50-50 Senate.

Several anti-Trump Republicans who listened to Manchin’s speech told CNN they were happy to hear him. However, they said they wanted to hear less standard-issue pablum about centrism and more on whether he was running for president and what all the No Labels talk was going to amount to.

As Manchin worked the room at Saint Anselm, shaking hands and taking selfies, local police swarmed around him, on edge over a group of climate protesters outside.

Unfazed, Manchin seemed only to register his annoyance at how a pack of reporters asking him about taking on Biden had gotten in the way of his selfies and handshakes.

He popped a piece of banana bread his daughter had handed to him into his mouth and headed to his next stop.

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