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Biden challenger Rep. Dean Phillips says he's trying to tell Democrats hard truths


Congressman Dean Phillips of Minnesota recently launched his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in New Hampshire. His campaign is a long, long shot. There's no question about it. But his challenge of President Joe Biden is dividing Democrats. As WBUR's Anthony Brooks reports, it highlights concern within the party that the president's reelection effort may be in trouble.


DEAN PHILLIPS: Welcome to my very first town hall in the Granite State. Only 119 to go.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Before a small group of voters in Manchester, Dean Phillips gets right to the point about why he's challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. He points out that a number of recent polls show Trump ahead nationally and in key swing states.


PHILLIPS: Because the truth of the matter is President Biden, a man I respect and I'm sure most of you do, too, is perhaps the only Democrat who could lose to Donald Trump. In fact, he's likely to.

BROOKS: Phillips is a centrist Democrat who supports Biden's agenda but says he's failed to unite the country. If he wins, Phillips says he'd appoint both Democrats and Republicans to his cabinet. In fact, he tapped a Never Trump Republican who quit the GOP to direct his campaign. Steve Schmidt, who co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, says Democrats are in denial about Biden's weakness.

STEVE SCHMIDT: Is the MAGA movement on its last breath? Is Donald Trump retired in Mar-a-Lago? Donald Trump is 40 points ahead in the Republican primary and, in one poll, nine points ahead of Joe Biden. This is not a national security secret.

BROOKS: The campaign hopes to appeal to moderates. Phillips calls them the exhausted majority. He supports abortion rights, but he says he understands why many don't. He's a gun owner who backs gun regulations. But in Manchester, his effort to reach toward the middle crashed when a 23-year-old voter named a Aton Chan challenged him. She asked Phillips why he didn't back a cease-fire in Gaza.


PHILLIPS: I have to tell you, I took note that you didn't mention, how do you feel about the Israeli babies, the grandmothers and grandpas that were killed and put up on Facebook...

ATON CHAN: I am completely empathetic to them. But by you switching this conversation - I'm talking about the 10,000...

PHILLIPS: No, I'm...

CHAN: ...Dead people in Gaza.

PHILLIPS: So what I'm trying...

CHAN: And you're not answering my question...

PHILLIPS: I'm going to...

CHAN: ...Just like the congressmen (ph).

BROOKS: The clash escalated as Chan became furious, and Phillips struggled to control the meeting.


PHILLIPS: OK. Everybody, look it - one - all I ask is just kindness and respect to one another - all of us. I respect you.

BROOKS: But Phillips also had support in the room. Steve Shurtleff, who co-chaired Biden's 2020 campaign in the state, says he's backing Phillips because Biden is too old and too unpopular.

STEVE SHURTLEFF: I'm concerned with the president's negatives. I think in a poll in New Hampshire, 67% of Democrats said they wished he wouldn't run again. They wish he'd step aside and pass that torch to the next generation.

BROOKS: But in New Hampshire, Biden still has plenty of supporters, and some are worried that Phillips' campaign will only weaken the president's chances against Trump.

KATHY SULLIVAN: What Dean Phillips is doing is feeding the Republican narrative that Joe Biden can't win. There's no enthusiasm.

BROOKS: Kathy Sullivan is a former chair of the state Democratic Party. New Hampshire offers Phillips a big opportunity to be noticed since Biden won't appear on the state's primary ballot. That's because the Democratic Party picked South Carolina to hold the first primary ahead of New Hampshire. So Sullivan is leading a write-in campaign in New Hampshire for the president and says Phillips will only hurt that effort if.

SULLIVAN: If, as he says, he wants a Democrat to win the White House, the best thing for Mr. Phillips to do is to pack his bags and go back to Minnesota.

BROOKS: Antjuan Seawright, a political strategist in South Carolina, agrees.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: It was Joe Biden's decision to make South Carolina first. And so to buck that shows not only disrespect to Black voters, the most loyal and dedicated voting bloc in a generation, but also to the process.

BROOKS: For his part, Phillips rejects that charge.


PHILLIPS: Speaking to white voters in New Hampshire is not disrespectful to Black voters in South Carolina. When I'm in South Carolina speaking to Black voters, that's not disrespectful to Arab American voters in Michigan.

BROOKS: Phillips says he's only telling Democrats what they need to hear - that large numbers of Americans don't want either Trump or Biden as president.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks in Manchester, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.