EXETER, N.H. - Joe Biden's entry into the 2020 campaign halted the momentum of a number of rivals. Beto O'Rourke was among the casualties.

Like 20 other contenders, the Texan can't touch the former vice president's experience. But at least he could harness a thirst for youthful energy and an upbeat demeanor - until small-town mayor Pete Buttigieg boxed him out on that flank, becoming the flavor of the month.

How long can the Texan survive in these twin shadows?

"Obama was the underdog by a longshot. It's still early," said Ross Mainville, 30, a union carpenter who came to see O'Rourke in Salem, N.H., with his wife Kirsten.

She's 28 and works in insurance and became such a fan last year that she started sending $5 or $10 a month for his Senate race.

They describe themselves as "very liberal." They love Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described socialist. They see O'Rourke as a centrist - and like him because of that, not despite of it, because it makes him more electable.

"He hits a note with a lot of people," Kirsten Mainville said. "He bridges the gap, where I haven't seen it in the other 22 yet. If there were just three people he would be way up there."

Biden now commands support from two in five Democratic primary voters nationwide. That's double the support for the current runner-up, Sanders, who has slipped dramatically from a high of about 27 percent. Put another way, the top two contenders have soaked up 60 percent of support, leaving 20 others scrambling for crumbs.

"There's a lot of time left, a lot of people to meet, a lot of town halls to hold," O'Rourke told reporters in Salem.

After eight years as vice president, many Democrats view the 76-year-old Biden as the most electable candidate in the era of Trump, despite any qualms about his age, relative centrism, handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and fizzled campaigns of 1988 and 2008.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released April 30 found that 56 percent of Democrats said Biden has the best chance of beating President Donald Trump. He was the top choice of 38 percent, up from 29 percent a month earlier, as O'Rourke's support plunged from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Biden holds double-digit leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. In South Carolina, nearly half the Democratic voters pick him over anyone else - and Buttigieg places third in all three states.

"No one thinks Biden is the future of the party. They're just hoping that he can restore the past," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist. "I'm not sure it's so much excitement" as a sense that he's "a safe spot for voters to land" as the race plays out.

"At least for now, Biden has put Beto pretty far back in the pack," he said.

O'Rourke won't be outworked, though.

Biden hits New Hampshire on Monday and Tuesday for his first foray there. He has three events scheduled - a relatively leisurely pace. Unlike O'Rourke, Biden is not heading to living rooms to schmooze a couple dozen voters at a time.

O'Rourke defends his approach and shrugs off the suggestion that he's lost momentum.

"If we're only looking for short-term returns and a bounce in the polls next week, there's one strategy that we could use," he told reporters in New London, N.H. "If over the long term we want to build a committed movement of voters and caucus-goers, then there's another strategy. ... You don't see us doing a ton of big rallies. You don't see me doing a lot of television."

That's changing, though. He's booked Monday night on Rachel Maddow's show on MSNBC, and the next morning on ABC's The View.

"Maybe it's good to do a slow build as opposed to immediately becoming a front-runner," Scala said, "with all of the attention that goes with that, and all of the scrutiny."

STOLEN THUNDER

Biden isn't the only candidate putting a squeeze on O'Rourke.

He's also has been eclipsed by Buttigieg, mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city. If South Bend were in Texas, it would rank 38th in population - behind Denton, Allen, McKinney, Plano, Richardson and Garland, among others just in North Texas.

"Buttigieg stole his thunder," said Scala.

O'Rourke only sort of qualified as a fresh face on the national scene, coming off a Senate race in which he raked in a record-smashing $80 million. By contrast, Scala said, "Buttigieg was the unknown phenom, out of nowhere. I don't know if it lasts, but ... even for someone like O'Rourke, it's tough to be the fresh face forever."

O'Rourke is hardly the only rival suffering the indignity of trailing a small town mayor with no national political experience.

Progressives - a key part of the Democratic base - rank Buttigieg third, behind Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and ahead of Biden and everyone else. Straw polls taken by Democracy for America, a leading progressive group, showed O'Rourke in second place in December; he has since plummeted to seventh.

"Beto needs to find some way to stay relevant," said Charles Chamberlain, chairman of Democracy for America. "The biggest threat is Buttigieg."

Progressives, he said, look askance at O'Rourke and Biden for some of the same reasons - their support for NAFTA and other trade deals. Biden also faces doubts on the left because he opposed school busing and supported a bankruptcy bill viewed as favoring credit card companies over consumers.

Both support a national $15 minimum wage and other worker protections, cheaper college, repeal of the Trump tax cuts, and expanded health coverage.

O'Rourke has long called for ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. Decriminalization is a central element of his agenda, along with a vow to expunge the records of people convicted of minor drug offenses.

He's never drawn the linkage to Biden. But this could be a line of attack later. As a senator, Biden backed a 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarcerations. He also backed harsher sentences for crack cocaine offenses, which O'Rourke and others blame for racial disparities in prison - positions for which Biden now expresses regret.

STILL UNSETTLED

The race is anything but settled.

"This time four years ago, Mike Huckabee was the great hope of the Republican Party," noted Sam Sands, 30, a public policy researcher at the University of New Hampshire who drove across the state at a friend's urging to see O'Rourke at Dartmouth College on Friday.

He likes that O'Rourke keeps his distance from the party line. That, in his view, "is the way out of this dark, dark place" in American politics. But he's also keeping an eye on Buttigieg, because "he's got a real generational message ... . I'm not super excited about Biden."

Micah Hundley, 31, a Lubbock native studying for a masters degree in globalization at Dartmouth, recalled that Howard Dean and John Edwards went through hot streaks, only to fade once voters decided they'd rather bet on electability than a message.

"I think he has legs," he said of O'Rourke. "He reminds me of George W. Bush in 2000 - relatable, a guy you can have a beer with. He seems like a normal reasonable guy. Not all the Democrats have that. If he can survive long enough, he could have a chance."

The first televised debates are in late June, with the huge field split into two groups sharing a stage in Miami on back-to-back nights. Voters say they're hoping for clarity and even some winnowing.

O'Rourke's prep work has already begun. When he's home in El Paso, he said, "I'm reading a ton."

"I haven't done any mock debates," he said. "I'm sure we will. But no, we haven't gotten that far."

Biden is a seasoned debater with a checkered record, capable of both a sizzling zinger and a painful gaffe. O'Rourke's high-stakes debate experience is confined to two televised showdowns against Sen. Ted Cruz. He held his own but couldn't stop the senator from painting him as too liberal for Texas.

There won't be much time to make an impression.

"Somebody did some math and determined that ... each candidate's going to have between four to seven minutes to talk, total," O'Rourke said. "I hope that it is a true competition of ideas and policies ... That's my plan. That's what I hope to be able to show when I'm on that stage."

TRUMP'S TAKE

Trump declared Biden the prohibitive front-runner on Friday, telling Politico he sees parallels to his own quick ascent in 2016. He also mocked Buttigieg, comparing him to a Mad magazine character: "Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States."

In March, he told Fox Business Network that he relished a challenge from Biden, Sanders or O'Rourke: "The press seems to have chosen Beto. And when I watch Beto, I say, 'We could dream about that.'"

With O'Rourke's prospects waning, Trump taunted him Wednesday night during a rally in Panama City Beach, Fla., recalling the rally he'd held in El Paso - the one that gave O'Rourke the opening to stage a mass counter-rally and reclaim attention he'd lost as he weighed his options.

"I went to Texas and made a speech. And Beto - Beto, boy has he fallen like a rock," Trump told the crowd. "What the hell happened to Beto?"

That was five days after O'Rourke came out forcefully for impeachment.

SHALLOW SUPPORT FOR BIDEN

Anecdotally, it appears that support for Biden may be shallow.

In dozens of interviews with uncommitted New Hampshire Democrats in the last few days, few expressed enthusiasm. They respect Biden and would eagerly support him if he wins the nomination. Most, however, view him as a safe - and perhaps temporary - choice as the race plays out.

"He's a known quantity," said Elizabeth Lowell, 75, a retired teacher. She added, "I don't think that's what we need in 2020."

She came to hear O'Rourke on Friday at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, where he spoke to about 100 voters in a library built from two Civil War-era barns. "Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are my generation. I like both of them but they need to step aside," she said.

Robert Rushton, 59, a software engineer from Brookline, N.H., said Biden represents "incremental change" at a moment that calls for bold leadership. But he would still support him if it comes to that.

"I wouldn't turn him down if he happened to be the nominee," he said. "He's the darling of the moment."

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