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New Hampshire Democrats scope out 2020 hopefuls during busy campaign weekend

Manchester, N.H. — Thousands of New Hampshire Democrats began the search this weekend for their next president, or so they hoped. Balancing the thunderous 2018 midterm Democratic wins with the still-painful 2016 presidential election, voters were treated to the busiest weekend of Democratic presidential campaigning in recent memory with seven contenders crossing the state within the last four days, according to New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley.

CBS News spoke with dozens of Democratic voters across 13 campaign events and heard voters overwhelmingly call for seismic change in both candidates and vision.

In his first trip to the Granite State since announcing his candidacy at the beginning of February, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, held seven campaign events, the most of any candidate of the weekend. Interested voters packed like friendly sardines into homes and offices where several times the combined body heat of the attendees fogged windows as Booker wiped sweat from his bald head, which he regularly used for self-deprecating jokes.

Booker's usual 20-minute stump speech is centered on inspiring a "revival of grace" and often references the struggles of the civil rights movement.

Booker believes his message of love and hope will be enough to beat President Trump, who Booker rarely — if ever — mentions.

Most attendees, like Karolina Bodner, 72, who took copious notes as she stood behind Booker, appreciated this upbeat oratorical approach.

"His whole thing is we will serve ourselves and the country better if we stand for—not just what we are against," she said.

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Cory Booker in New Hampshire Bo Erickson

Others disagreed.

"To me it sounded a little weak," said State Rep. Wendy Thomas after hearing Booker's message. "I'm not saying that we have to hate them. I'm not saying that we have to destroy them, I'm saying we have to get rid of them. We can love them later."

Thomas may find other Democratic candidates' messaging more appealing. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, literally took her message to church as around 1,000 people flooded the pews of the South Street church in Portsmouth like it was Christmas Eve mass.

Harris said Democrats must talk about "hard truths" like gun violence, a lack of concern about educating other people's kids, and the lives of immigrants in this country but also that these ideas need to be "prosecuted" via a public debate.

As Harris outlined these "hard truths," her Democratic congregation on Presidents Day regularly rose to their feet to cheer. By the end of her event, Harris had converted many Democrats into believers.

Yet, some yearned for a more emotional message, especially those who had previously attended Booker's more intimate events.

"I really liked Harris' talk, but it felt more performative," said Marcos Del Hierro, 37, comparing the event to Booker's which he attended the day before.

Harris showed her go-with-the-flow attitude as she waded into the snowy outdoors to address the hundreds of people who were not able to get into her event.

"It's amazing!" Harris reacted as she stepped back inside.

Beyond stump speeches, candidates differentiated themselves with new policy positions.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, received progressive credit by endorsing a third federal gender identity marker for Americans who identify as non-binary when asked about a similar statewide bill. Booker, meanwhile, took this question, twice, and said he would research.

Harris also  endorsed another progressive idea, a name change for Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day. Booker also was asked and said he would find out more.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, was also in the state and took a centrist stance on two now-popular issues at a CNN televised town hall: Medicare for All she said is a "possibility in the future" and underscored that she wanted a more at-the-ready solution for health.

"No. I am not for free four-year college for all," was another definitive assessment of a progressive Democratic idea.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with CBS News his staff last week was managing his expectations for turnout at his New Hampshire events due in part to the large number of candidates campaigning nearby.

But turnout exceeded Buttigieg's expectations and showed up in the hundreds to hear his commitment to "freedom," which he defined as not just idealist but freedom for women's reproduction rights, freedom from crushing loan debt, and access to affordable healthcare.

Voters also mentioned another freedom on display: Marriage. Buttigieg said he introduced his husband at the start of the remarks because his "marriage is the most important thing in my life" and he wanted voters to see that.  

The clearest contrast between the candidates came from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, whose platform centers on an anti-war agenda. While the other campaign events were filled with applause, around 150 attendees at her Sunday town hall sat mostly in silence, seemingly entranced by the serious issues of nuclear war she was forecasting.

One moment of Gabbard-loving applause was significantly different. The first question, came from a man who said, "I really admire that you met with [Syrian dictator Bashar al] Assad." Gabbard controversially met with Assad in secret in June 2017. 

More than half of the attendees, many while wearing Hawaii leis, erupted with clapping joy.