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Underdog Democrats Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick Say They’ve Got a Chance in Flinty New Hampshire

5 minute read

The two hardest-working candidates in New Hampshire this primary season haven’t yet made a dent in the polls—but both insist it’s too early to count them out.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is drawing a dismal 0%, according to an Emerson College survey, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is a statistically insignificant hiccup higher, cornering just 1% of likely voters. Both candidates claim to have spent more time in New Hampshire than anyone else, and both have positioned themselves as underdog moderates, reasonable bets for voters concerned that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too liberal, and that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is too green.

And both have spent the last week insisting that they will exceed expectations in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday.

“I am well aware of where I am in the polls,” Bennet said at a downtown Manchester event on Saturday where crowds spilled onto the sidewalk. “We can surprise a lot of people — and it’s not going to take much to surprise them.” Bennet’s event drew about twice as many people as Vice President Joe Biden’s, who was campaigning just around the corner.

“I come from the right part of the country. I have the right agenda,” Bennet said, citing his ability to win in Colorado, a swing-state. “It’s an agenda that’s been developed not through a deep-blue state; I have to admit that.”

A few hours later, a throng of Patrick supporters gathered outside Section 121 of the SNHU Arena chanting “Deval for President!” Patrick says his last push is grounded in part in the hope that famously independent New Hampshire voters will upset the algorithms.

“The expectations generally — not mine — … are low because pundits and pollsters keep telling everybody they should be low,” Patrick told TIME after Friday Prayers at the Islamic Society of New Hampshire in Manchester. “But I keep telling people that their vote is theirs and theirs alone.”

Both Bennet and Patrick’s electoral strategies depend almost entirely on doing well in New Hampshire, a state with a reputation for rejecting big television budgets over hand-to-hand campaigning, and for rejecting Iowans’ verdict over an underdog. The state handed wins to Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and buoyed a down-and-out John McCain in 2008 after he spent months broke and hitching rides with die-hard supporters. Both Bennet and Patrick are hoping that a strong finish here will be enough to slingshot them ahead — Bennet with the momentum heading westward with centrists, Patrick heading toward South Carolina with African American support.

A big part of Bennet’s pitch is similar to Biden’s. He argues that his brand of pragmatism and bipartisanship will be more effective nationwide, helping to drag down-ballot Democrats over the finish line. “If Michael Bennet becomes the Democratic nominee, Mitch McConnell will look like he crapped a pineapple,” says James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist who is traveling with Bennet.

Carville adds, perhaps paradoxically, that polls and expectations in New Hampshire are so low that Bennet actually has a chance. “If we get this horse out of the barn, we’re going to run,” he says.

At Bennet’s Manchester event Saturday, 38-year-old Austin Cassidy of Concord, said he was considering supporting Biden, but expressed concern about his age. Biden is 77. Bennet is 55.

Patrick, 63, who entered the race late — in November — says he’s realistic about his unique uphill fight. His late entry robbed him of early moment and fundraising dollars, and one of his top rivals, Biden, already enjoys the strong support of African American voters in South Carolina. But, he says, there are reasons for optimism. Barack Obama was also trailing Hillary Clinton in South Carolina until he proved he could win when he won Iowa’s lead-off caucuses 12 years ago.

At a campaign event at the Islamic Society in Manchester on Friday, a voter asked why it took him so long to enter the race. “Because, from the little I know about your résumé, I think you are the perfect candidate for this time,” he said.

Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College, says it’s difficult to tell if Bennet and Patrick’s persistence in the state will end up paying off in last-minute bump.

“I think you have to put the hard work in, way in advance,” he says, but that’s not always enough. “Sometimes, even if you do that, you’re not attractive to voters. We’ve seen that with Cory Booker, who is everything a candidate should be but, for some reason, did not attract voters.”

Bennet and Patrick both say they’re in the fight until the bitter end. In a topsy-turvy political era, New Hampshire voters may again turn the race on its head.

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Write to Philip Elliott / Manchester, N.H. at philip.elliott@time.com