Change that can win? Democrats grapple with core question

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes the stage at a climate rally with the Sunrise Movement at The Graduate Hotel, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

DOVER, NH – The Democrats standing in a cold New Hampshire parking lot are desperate for change after years of Donald Trump's turbulent presidency.

But like Democratic voters across the country, they're grappling with a core question as they size up their party's leading candidates just three weeks before primary voting begins: How much change is too much in 2020?

It is a question that has plagued candidates and voters alike over the last year in the Democratic Party's quest to identify the person best positioned to defeat Trump in November. And on the eve of the party's first primary, voters are torn over a slate of high-profile candidates — ranging from a self-avowed socialist to a billionaire Wall Street baron — who represent the broad spectrum of change, ideologically and symbolically, that is today's deeply divided Democratic Party.

Just ask the two dozen voters who waited outside a recent over-packed Dover, New Hampshire, campaign appearance for Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator and the only woman in the top tier, whose campaign mantra is “big, bold change."

“I want to see massive change. I worry about my daughter’s future — she’s 6,” said 38-year-old Democrat Margaret Langsenkamp, who hasn't settled on a candidate but was leaning toward Warren or U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who ended his campaign on Monday. “But I’m also practical about what the American people can stomach. We have to beat Trump."

Langsenkamp conceded that Warren, her preferred candidate, might struggle in a general election to defend her "socialist leanings.”

With four candidates knotted at the top of primary polls, it could take several more months for the Democratic Party to sort out its high-stakes dilemma. Party officials have so far downplayed concerns about a protracted primary battle — never mind the oft-whispered prospect of a so-called contested convention — but they are encouraging the candidates to keep it positive as they debate the kind of change the party should fight for.

“The voters are thirsting, desperately, for aspirational messages,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “They want to hear about something positive. They want to hear about a moving-forward sort of change. They want to be told that there’s a better tomorrow. If you look back over the last 100 years, that’s been the winning message of every Democratic presidential candidate.”