Gavin Newsom works to bolster Biden in a swing-state tour that could boost both their ambitions

HOOKSETT, N.H. (AP) — For years, Gavin Newsom stayed far away from New Hampshire by design.

The ambitious California governor understood that any visit to a bastion of presidential politics would fuel speculation that he might be eyeing President Joe Biden's job. But on Monday, with Biden fighting an existential political crisis, the embattled president dispatched Newsom to New Hampshire to help rescue his flailing campaign.

It was the latest and perhaps most significant stop in a multi-state tour for Newsom, who has emerged as Biden's most prominent battleground-state defender.

“I decided instead of just rolling over and giving up, that I would step up and pick up the fight,” Newsom told reporters at a highway rest stop in his first public appearance in the state as an elected official. He said of Biden, “He’s going to be our nominee.”

It's a pivotal moment both for Newsom and his Democratic Party, which has been consumed by infighting and uncertainty in the wake of Biden's disastrous debate performance just 11 days earlier.

Biden insisted again Monday that he would not suspend his campaign. But a growing number of elected Democrats in Washington and even here in New Hampshire are calling on the 81-year-old president to step aside, warning that he is too weak to defeat former President Donald Trump this fall and may not be able to lead the country effectively for another four years even if he wins.

Many Democratic officials believe Vice President Kamala Harris is best positioned to replace Biden. But the short list of top-tier alternatives is led by Newsom, a big-state governor with big ambitions who is as comfortable talking policy as he is mixing it up with leading Republicans.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore are also part of the replacement debate playing out privately among donors, strategists and elected officials. All of them have been vocal Biden advocates in recent days.

Speaking ahead of a closed-door fundraiser for New Hampshire Senate Democrats, Newsom said the party's current divisions were unhelpful and distracting.

He also brushed aside a question about whether he would seek the party's nomination at next month's national convention should Biden leave the race.

“I think that’s a legitimate question and I respect it, but it’s also exactly the question that Donald Trump is hoping everyone asks as he’s out on the golf course,” Newsom said. "So to me, that is not a question I’m going to respond to, because Joe Biden is our nominee, he’s our president. ... And I look forward to voting for him.”

At the most vulnerable moment of his presidency, Biden has never kept Newsom so close.

Since the debate June 27, Newsom has campaigned on Biden’s behalf in Michigan, Pennsylvania and now New Hampshire, which is known both for its traditionally early primaries and as a tiny swing state in general elections with four Electoral College votes.

Earlier Monday, Newsom was featured on an all-staff Biden campaign conference call in which he insisted voters continue to care deeply about Biden despite their fears and anxiety.

Newsom and his team have been overwhelmingly deferential to Biden. In recent days, Newsom’s staff referred all questions about his travel schedule and political plans to the Biden campaign.

Within both camps, the Biden-Newsom relationship is viewed as mutually beneficial.

Newsom, 56, offers Biden credibility and excitement as one of the Democratic Party’s brightest rising stars with close ties to California’s powerful donor network. And Biden offers Newsom a platform on the biggest stage in U.S. politics to help boost his brand ahead of a potential 2028 presidential bid of his own.

But there are risks, especially for Newsom.

Former New Hampshire State House Speaker Steve Shurtleff said he’s “very impressed” by Newsom and sees him as top-tier presidential prospect. But Shurtleff, once Biden's chief supporter in the state, now believes the president must step aside and wondered aloud whether Newsom is picking the wrong side in what he described as “a profile-in-courage moment” for party leaders.

“He’s shown that he’s been very loyal to the president and the administration. And that, I think, could hurt him,” Shurtleff said of Newsom.

Overall, few New Hampshire Democratic officials have called for Biden to leave the race, but it is no secret that Biden's relationships in the state may be strained.

It was Biden who pushed the Democratic National Committee to bypass New Hampshire earlier this year as the opening contest on the presidential primary calendar for the first time in decades.

Even before the historic shift, New Hampshire Democrats weren't Biden's biggest supporters.

He finished in fifth place in the state’s 2020 primary behind the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Biden did, however, defeat Trump here in the general election by 7 points.

State Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said Newsom electrified a sold-out crowd at the evening fundraiser, where the California governor touted Biden's record.

“New Hampshire Democrats are not bedwetters,” Buckley said. “We are strong, united and determined to reelect Joe Biden.”

Still, Biden's Democratic critics have been increasingly vocal.

“The party needs to honor and thank the president for his five decades of service, but swiftly embrace new leadership before it is too late,” said New Hampshire attorney Jay Surdukowski, who is active in Democratic politics, pointing to a “deep bench” that includes Newsom, Harris, Whitmer and Buttigieg.

He referenced Biden’s halting debate performance and his subsequent statement that he’d limit his events after 8 p.m.

“Democrats like to say President Trump is a threat to democracy," Surdukowski said. "A president who can’t form coherent sentences and goes to bed at 8 p.m. may be the greater threat."

There was no sign of such criticism at the rest stop off Interstate 93, where Biden's campaign had invited a handful of local party officials to attend Newsom's unannounced appearance.

One of the invitees, Jennifer Buck, 78, chair of the Webster town Democrats, said she likes what Newsom has done in California. But she doesn't think he should replace Biden on the ticket.

If Biden does step aside or is “pushed out,” she said, Harris should be the party's nominee.

In that, Newsom may agree.

The California governor predicted that the vice president would beat Trump in a hypothetical matchup when asked.

“I have no doubt about that. And that’s from someone that’s also known her longer than most, before we were both in politics,” he said. "But I don’t expect it’s going to come to that.”


Peoples reported from New York.