The two longshot candidates squared off in a New Hampshire debate on Monday.
In a primary packed with inconsequential debates among longshot candidates, Monday’s bout between Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson might have been the biggest dud.
The Minnesota representative and the self-help guru sparred in front of a crowd of seventh-graders and adults in a downtown Manchester ballroom during the two-week runup to the primary that their party has decided won’t count and that the incumbent, President Joe Biden, isn’t bothering to compete in.
“Joe Biden should have been right here with us,” Phillips said from the stage. “He is taking the Granite State for granted, he is taking this election for granted, and he is taking every single one of you and this entire country for granted,” Phillips said.
Williamson chimed in: “I agree with that.”
But Biden was in South Carolina, drawing contrasts not with his Democratic challengers but with his likely general-election opponent, former President Donald Trump.
And so Phillips and Williamson were left to make the case against him at a convention hosted by a local college in a debate airing on Monday evening Sirius XM radio. The only other presidential hopeful scheduled to show up and speak at the event was low-polling Republican former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Phillips cast Biden as a “risk to democracy” because “he is knowingly going into an election which his approval numbers and his poll numbers make it almost impossible to win” — a nod to national surveys that show Biden trailing Trump and, in some cases, Republican former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“I know Marianne feels the same way,” Phillips said as he stood alongside her. “We are the only two in the United States of America on the Democratic side of the aisle to stand up and tell you the truth: he’s going to lose, he’s going to lose.”
The intraparty spat over this year’s nominating calendar created an opening for Phillips and Williamson in the Granite State, where the results of the Jan. 23 Democratic primary won’t count toward the party’s nomination but where a stronger-than-expected showing by either candidate could create an embarrassing situation for the incumbent.
Yet, two weeks before voters head to the polls, neither Phillips nor Williamson appear to be denting Biden’s support in surveys in the state where the only way to cast a vote for the president will be to write in his name on the ballot. A Saint Anselm College poll from mid-December showed Biden with a 40-percentage-point lead over his rivals.
And Biden’s allies are ramping up their efforts with the write-in campaign. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) became the latest in a string of high-profile surrogates to throw his weight behind the effort, appearing in a press conference in Concord on Monday afternoon alongside Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) and prominent Democratic state Sen. Donna Soucy to cast this election as a choice between a champion of democracy in Biden and a threat to it in Trump.
A super PAC set up to encourage voters to write in Biden’s name has also spent nearly $350,000 so far on mailers, digital advertising and phone banking, according to the group’s latest campaign finance filings.
“It’s obviously harder for a candidate to run as a write-in candidate than to have their name appear on the ballot. And so, I’m glad that the true-blue Democrats of New Hampshire are going to get out and vote and bring their pens,” Raskin said. “It’s not the kind of election where you can sit back and flip a coin or watch the polls. This is an election where we need everybody engaged and involved.”
Yet Williamson argued in the debate that the party can’t win another election by again talking about Trump.
Instead, the two tried to outflank Biden on the left by getting into an argument over Medicare for All — the policy bugaboo that has plagued Democrats since Sen. Bernie Sanders first ran for president.
Williamson accused Phillips of pandering to progressives by signing onto Medicare for All — a signature issue for the far-left — two months after launching his campaign. Phillips responded by saying he was an original cosponsor of Rep. Ro Khanna’s bill for state-based universal healthcare, and that while he’s now embraced the concept more broadly, the Medicare for All bill is “not perfect.”