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Opinion: Biden should prepare for the Granite-State test

David Shribman

"A man stands there as an ant might stand on the edge of a huge tureen." — Renowned 19th century theologian Starr King, speaking of Mount Washington in 1859

Pinkham Notch, N.H. — The peaks here are treacherous. Seasoned hikers have stumbled on their paths across the Presidential Range. Many of them have fallen. So, too, have political front runners.

This perspective on New Hampshire’s faraway White Mountain fastnesses should give Joe Biden a case of vice-presidential vertigo.

Joe Biden, the newly-elected Democratic senator from Delaware, is shown in Washington on Dec. 12, 1972.

At lower altitudes, where the Delawarean dwells, Biden has cultivated a deep sense of political history. He first ran for the White House in 1988 but withdrew before he even reached New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary. He tried it again a dozen years ago and attracted only 638 votes here. Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, no one’s idea of a serious presidential candidate, won six times as many votes as Biden, who had far better experience and a far shinier reputation. Hillary Clinton, who won the contest, gathered nearly 20 times as many votes.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

So Biden, who hasn’t visited this state for five weeks, does not enter the contest here with even a trace of self confidence. He knows this is the place where front runners come to be humbled.

‘’More people die in new Hampshire than win,’’ said Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who performed the unusual feat of winning by losing. He mortified President Lyndon Johnson by coming in a strong second in 1968, beating expectations and contributing to LBJ’s decision later that month to withdraw from the race.

In all, within Biden’s living memory eight front runners have met defeat in the snowy hills and gritty old mill towns here. Only three recovered to win the White House. None was as prominent, accomplished or persistent as Biden, a national political figure for nearly a half-century.

No less an authority as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top Donald Trump lawyer once considered the 2008 GOP nomination front runner, learned the perils of presidential politics the hard way. ‘’There is a reality to the primary process, and you don't win primaries by being ahead in national polls,’’ he said. ‘’You win them by winning Iowa, by winning New Hampshire.’’

Front-runner status puts a presidential contender firmly in the sights of all his rivals, and in a field with as many as two dozen candidates, that can mean attacks from all sides. Biden has been the direct target of debate challenges from Sen. Kamala Harris of California (on school busing), Sen. Corey Booker (on criminal justice), former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro (on immigration), and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington (on the Iraq war). Last week Trump chimed in helpfully, saying ‘’Joe is not playing with a full deck.’’

All this puts Biden in the uncomfortable situation faced by Presidents Truman (1952) and Johnson (1968), attacked here for their policies in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, respectively, and by Sens. Muskie (1972) and Dole (1996), pilloried here for not being liberal or conservative enough, respectively, for the emerging cadres of activists in their rapidly changing parties.

Biden’s challenge also mirrors that of Mondale in 1984, when an earlier former vice president was criticized for being the captive of special interests, especially labor “bosses’’ and “kingpins,’’ and (by Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado) for being the prisoner of stale ideas.

‘’I figured I won Iowa and would go into New Hampshire with a strong tailwind,’’ Mondale, who lost the state to Hart and did not seal up the nomination until the last week of the primaries, said in a conversation Wednesday. ‘’They’re quirky up there. They have their own way of doing things and their own way of thinking. They don’t want to do what the rest of the nation seems to want to do and topple a front runner. This could happen again.’’

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

New Hampshire is a political crucible, and not a kind one. The latest front runner to meet a Granite-State test must take solace in the notion that being beaten up on the path to the summit here and in the other early political states might toughen him up for the ultimate contest against Trump.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.