MANCHESTER, N.H. — Ann Ackerman recalled her excitement at snapping a photo with Joe Biden at his “first real, big appearance” in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
“We both had dark hair at the time,” Ackerman, 73, joked of meeting him at an annual state Democratic fundraiser in 1986, when Biden, then a senator from Delaware, was preparing for his first presidential campaign. “He has a great sense of humor, or at least at that time, and I’d like to see some of that show through again, because that's part of the humanness of him.”
Six months before voters here cast their ballots in the 2020 primary, most candidates are still introducing themselves. But Biden is reconnecting with familiar faces in Granite Staters’ backyards while embracing the unfamiliar — campaigning as a front-runner in his third attempt at the party’s presidential nomination.
Unlike his first campaign, which lasted just three and a half months, or his 2008 bid, which ended before voting day in New Hampshire after he finished a disappointing fifth in Iowa, this time feels different. Now, Biden has the resources, the ground game and the name recognition here that reflects his status as the early favorite for the nomination, according to staunch supporters and undecided voters alike.
“In '87, he was a bit more brash, a bit more, dare I say, overconfident in some ways,” said Tom Maher, of New Castle, who supported Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., in that primary. “What I see now is someone who's just very tempered, and there's a tremendous calm about him.”
Maher went on to work as a Capitol Hill aide for Biden in 1989 and later volunteered for his 2008 presidential campaign — a “shoestring effort,” as he called it.
In that presidential bid, Biden would draw 150 people at most to campaign events, but he didn't travel to the state much because his financially struggling campaign made Iowa, the first primary contest, its priority, said Julia Barnes, a regional field director among a staff of about 10 in New Hampshire that year.
“Resource-wise, we didn’t have it,” she said.
Now, Biden is drawing crowds, with 400 people attending a sold-out picnic in Portsmouth for the New Hampshire Young Democrats — part of a youthful voting bloc recent polls say he’s struggling to reach. He buzzed through Berlin a month before to connect with rural north country voters, then popped in for breakfast with two dozen diners at Chez Vachon, a Manchester mainstay.
“We have the ability to compete everywhere, and that's what we're making, a real investment in building up a ground game to compete all across the state,” said Ian Moskowitz, Biden's state campaign director. This time, the campaign has 45 staffers in all 10 counties, he said.
Ned Helms, co-chair of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in the state and an early 2020 Biden endorser, said the former vice president’s previous runs feel like “night and day” compared to this one.
“This is not his first rodeo,” Helms said. “He was one of the last to get in, but he's been around before.”
Biden’s operation is more robust this time, with a staff on par with those of other top 2020 contenders. But the state campaign has lagged in infrastructure. It’s one of a dozen with a headquarters here, but is only just beginning to open field offices, with the first one in Nashua and plans for three more next week. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has six field offices already, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., leads the pack in total staff on the ground.
Where Biden lacks in a footprint, however, he makes up for in relationships — ones he began building three decades ago, his supporters say.
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Keynote addresses, breakfast speeches, and later White House inaugural invitations, “those are the kinds of things that he did to stay in touch to this day, which made it fairly clear that he hadn't given up on the idea of running,” said Terry Shumaker, a former Clinton administration ambassador who was on Biden's New Hampshire campaign steering committee in 1987.
Biden’s presidential campaigns present contrasts for pundits, but the primary point of comparison for voters this time is his experience as Obama's vice president.
Gerri King, an undecided voter who has seen Biden across all three campaigns, says he’s not different as a candidate, but she’s looking at him differently.
She said that one thing Biden has going for him is that "he probably understands the presidency in a way that others might not, and in a way that other vice presidents didn't because it wasn't shared with them."
Ackerman, who didn’t support Biden in past runs but is considering him this time around, has noticed the campaign capitalizing on the public's familiarity with the Biden family by using his wife, Jill, as a surrogate.
“She spoke to who her husband was as a person,” Ackerman said of seeing her at a recent house party.
At a recent education roundtable in Manchester, the former second lady spoke to what she sees as her husband’s electability over Trump in unusually blunt terms.
“Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election,” she said. “And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”
Any local advantage from the former vice president's long record and name recognition — which Moskowitz, the state campaign director, touts as “beginning from a place of strength” — doesn’t yet appear to be translating into surging donations, however.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana — at 37, the youngest candidate in the field — recently attracted a sizable crowd of more than 800 in Dover, a riverside town where Biden drew just a couple hundred attendees later that same day. Buttigieg pulled in the biggest fundraising haul in the state of any 2020 contender in the last quarter — nearly $66,000, compared to Biden’s $41,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Sanders has the most individual donors in New Hampshire, followed by Buttigieg and Warren.
Skepticism of Biden's electability because of his age (he's 76, but it's also lobbed at 77-year-old Sanders, and Warren herself is 70) could receive less credence in a state with one of the oldest populations in the nation — and recent polling shows Biden doing better among those 65 and older than, say, Sanders, who is more likely to be viewed favorably by younger voters.
"I really get upset when people say either 'he’s too old' or 'are you sure someone can win?'" King said. "And I remind people that people said Barack couldn't win because he was a person of color. And people said Trump could not win. And both of them did.”
Ackerman is more concerned about Biden's schedule, which hasn't been as packed as other candidates'. “That’s practical, but that stirs the age questions,” she said.
On Biden’s propensity for gaffes, Maher, his former aide, calls it a nonissue for undecided voters. “New Hampshire voters do take their role seriously and don’t overreact to a narrative,” he said. “They do see and hear the VP in person and they know he’s up for the task.”
And regarding race and diversity, such as Biden’s recent comments about his ability to work with segregationists early in his career and his past position on school busing, Ackerman said she wishes the media would provide more context and historical reference.
“Doesn’t make them less disturbing, but [it was] different times,” she said. “When I first saw Biden in the 1980s, I thought of him as a supporter of diversity.”
For Biden, New Hampshire's shift from red to purple over the last few decades has created a different climate than he saw 30 years ago.
“There’s nobody who has as sizable a difference in their experiences in New Hampshire as Joe Biden is having right now,” said former field director Barnes, who later worked for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
Biden, a moderate, has typically appealed to white, working-class Democrats, whose vote in New Hampshire is a barometer of support in other states. But the strength of that voting bloc has weakened over the last three decades because of two influential forces reshaping the state’s electorate: young residents reaching voting age and migration, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and local demographics expert.
The shifts are also transforming one of the nation’s least-diverse states: the Census Bureau recently announced that 10 percent of state residents are now ethnic minorities, the highest share ever recorded. The younger, more diverse voters tend to be more liberal, pulling away from the traditionally moderate voting bloc of the state Democratic Party.
“Biden’s concern has to be how he can attract not just more moderate, working-class white voters, but also college-educated, perhaps more progressive or liberal voters,” Scala said.
Still, Biden’s team sees his political experience and pragmatic approach as selling points.
“When you look at some of the people who are supporting the vice president, I think it shows his broad appeal in the state,” Moskowitz said.
That cross section of endorsements includes former state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, longtime state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro and Rep. Denny Ruprecht, currently the youngest representative in the State House.
Such endorsements can be overrated, however, Scala said. Hillary Clinton, for example, overwhelmingly captured the state Democratic establishment’s backing but lost to Sanders by 20 points in a rebuke of local political elites.
And winning younger, more diverse, more liberal voters over could prove difficult for Biden, who faces significant challenges from the candidates next door.
“The biggest challenge in New Hampshire are the candidates from Massachusetts and Vermont, as I see it right now, because they're next door and they can mobilize a ton of people quite easily,” said Shumaker, who referred to the long history of candidates from both states winning the state since 1960.
A Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll of likely Democratic primary voters in the state this month found that 21 percent would support Biden in the contest, while 17 percent would back Sanders and 14 percent Warren; the poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. A CNN poll of likely state primary voters conducted by the University of New Hampshire last month showed 24 percent would vote for Biden if the primary were held today, while Warren and Sanders would get 19 percent each — within the poll’s margin of error of 5 percentage points.
About a fifth of likely Democratic primary voters, however, are undecided, the August poll said. And whatever happens in Iowa will affect how New Hampshire voters cast their ballots shortly after.
As Broderick, the former chief justice, sees it, beating the senators here would be hard, but doable.
“I think it’s more likely you can beat one of them,” he told NBC News. “That would be major news, I think, to beat the neighbors.”
Julia Jester is a 2020 campaign embed for NBC News.
Amanda Golden is a 2020 campaign embed for NBC News.