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As next debate nears, trailing candidates soldier on in obscurity

Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Bill de Blasio bounded into New Hampshire with a turnaround plan for his floundering presidential campaign: opposing robots.

The New York mayor predicted that a newfound focus on protecting American workers against automation through imposition of a "robot tax" could lead to his electoral salvation.

"People are responding to it," he insisted to a smattering of reporters over the weekend, noting that the issue even allowed him to find common ground with an archenemy, Tucker Carlson of Fox News. "That is the kind of thing that causes a lot of people to pay attention."

So it goes for the dozen or more presidential candidates whose place on the campaign trail straddles obscurity and oblivion. With donor money drying up, poll numbers going nowhere and the media losing interest, candidates struggling with single-digit (or even zero-digit) voter support are reassessing, rejiggering and relaunching.

A senator, two governors and two congressmen have already called the race quits. Many of those who haven't are facing regular indignities on the trail, traveling repeatedly to states with early primaries only to find voters who wouldn't recognize them standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts.

Half of the remaining field of 20 fell short of the Democratic National Committee's threshold to be on the debate stage Thursday, a potential death blow to their chances. Even several who do have spots on stage seem stalled in a contest dominated by the top few.


Yet the also-rans soldier on -- even when staying in the race threatens to damage their future political prospects -- fueled by a great engine of political campaigns: irrational hope.

"Virtually every presidential nomination turns up a surprise candidate," said former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who became that candidate in 1988. He was at the New Hampshire Democratic Convention last weekend to give a boost to a fellow Coloradan, Sen. Michael Bennet.

Bennet takes comfort in the fact that Hart was nowhere at this point in his run. Because Bennet is nowhere. Not even at 1% in the average national poll, and no better in the surveys of early-voting states.

"The voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are just beginning to look," Bennet argued after Hart stepped away from the microphone. He didn't let Hart step away for long.


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