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For N.H. Democrats, A Populist Message With Multiple Messengers

New Hampshire Democrats gathered Saturday in Manchester for their state party convention. With five of the party’s six presidential hopefuls as featured speakers, Democrats are far from settled on who their nominee will be. But the party faithful appear happy with how their nominating process is playing out.

It might not be a surprise to hear that Democrats who attended the convention, like Ruth Larson of Alton, enjoyed what they heard. "It was a very energizing meeting," she said. "Hillary Clinton was a mesmerizing speaker. O’Malley did an excellent job.”

What might be surprising is that Larson isn’t backing either of the candidates. She’s a supporter of Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders, who she says has led the Democratic field toward a message of championing working Americans over powerful and wealthy interests.

Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR
Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in Manchester, September 19, 2015.

  "He has changed the tone of the conversation," Larson said. "He stands up proudly as a progressive. I think his influence on other candidates is to bring out their progressive side and make them feel more courageous."

Sanders struck this same populist tone in his speech, vowing to break up the biggest Wall Street financial institutions, offer tuition-free public colleges and raise the minimum wage. he said he would lead a grassroots “political revolution” to make it all happen.

"You’re looking at a candidate who doesn’t represent the agenda of corporate America, who does not represent the agenda of the billionaire class," Sanders said. "And I stand before you today to say loudly and proudly, I don’t want their money, I don’t want a super PAC, we’re gonna do it on our own."

But Sanders wasn’t the only presidential hopeful talking in these terms. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her presidency would favor what she called everyday Americans, and promised she would build an economy in which everyone would see benefits. 

Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in Manchester, September 19, 2015.

  “We need growth that is strong, fair and long-term," Clinton said, "so the rewards of success don’t just go to those the top. When a company does well, shareholders and executives aren’t the only ones who should benefit. The people who work at that company should as well.”

Clinton then upped the ante with a reference to a worker uprising known quite well in this part of the country: "If it can work for Market Basket across New England, it can work across America.”

At times the party’s own leadership appeared caught up in the rhetoric of the grassroots taking on those at the top. The audience repeatedly interrupted Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to call for more candidate debates than the six the DNC has sanctioned. 

As the crowd shouted "We want debates!" Wasserman Schultz said, "My friends, what's more important, drawing a contrast with Republicans, or arguing about debates? Let's focus on our mission and the task at hand. Enough is enough.”

Debates came up again when Martin O’Malley took the stage. The former Maryland governor has recently accused the party of limiting debates to help Clinton’s campaign, but on Saturday he spoke about giving voters a chance to hear Democrats’  ideas after hearing plenty from Republican hopefuls.

"Over the last four weeks, we have witnessed not one but two unanswered rounds of nationally televised Republican presidential debates, led by that racist, anti-immigrant carnival barker Donald Trump," O'Malley said. He then added, “I say they can have their anger and fear, but they cannot go unanswered.”

Many Democrats here said the way the campaign has unfolded thus far, especially Sanders’ rise, has been surprising – but pleasantly so. Cathy Fountain of Dalton said Clinton has the best skills to fight for the middle class, but said that doesn’t mean she’s opposed to the others. 

"They’re all on the same page pretty much, they’re just approaching it differently," Fountain said. "Making sure that we have the health care for all people. Equality for everybody – marriage, work, equality for every being that’s here."

Of course, campaigns and supporters can end up at odds with each other, especially as the New Hampshire primary draws nearer. But on convention day at least, Democrats like Fountain were happy to see their party as one team with one message and multiple messengers.

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