During an eyebrow-raising visit to New Hampshire on Friday, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia name-checked friends who are elected officials in the Granite State and complimented the discerning nature of its voters.
He paid homage to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary tradition and swiped at President Biden’s decision to undercut New Hampshire’s power in this year’s Democratic contest.
And when pressed on his own ambitions, the conservative Democratic senator offered a message that would-be candidates have often deployed as they flirt with this traditionally influential early-voting state: He declined to rule anything out.
“How would you feel if a bunch of Democrats in New Hampshire wrote in ‘Joe’ — not Biden — but wrote in ‘Joe Manchin’?” an attendee asked as Mr. Manchin kicked off a “listening tour” at Politics and Eggs, an event series at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics that has long hosted presidential candidates and potential contenders.
“I cannot prevent whatever you want to do,” Mr. Manchin replied to applause from the audience in Manchester, N.H., before insisting that he was “not here campaigning.”
The question of what Mr. Manchin wants to do has long infuriated and confounded his Democratic colleagues in Washington, who have often seen him as a roadblock to their legislative agenda, even as he has played a pivotal role in eventually passing key priorities.
Now, Mr. Manchin — known for a love of the spotlight that stands out even among U.S. senators — is stoking new questions about his next steps.
Speculation has grown about whether he might embark on a late, long-shot presidential bid this year, and he has attracted interest from No Labels, a centrist group that is searching for a “unity ticket” to mount a potential third-party bid. Democratic allies of Mr. Biden are trying to stave off such efforts.
“He really deserves most serious consideration from No Labels because he is part of our movement” if he is interested in a third-party bid, said former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the founding chairman of the group, who said he had spoken with Mr. Manchin after the senator announced in November that he would not seek re-election. “He’s walked the centrist, bipartisan, problem-solving walk.”
But the senator did not offer a ringing endorsement of the group’s plans when asked on Friday about the electoral potential of such a bid.
“It’s admirable what they’re trying to do to provide an option. OK, they’re working very hard towards that, and their best intentions are to bring people together,” he said, noting his longtime involvement with the group. Pressed again on the question of viability, he replied: “I don’t know. I mean, you have to — the people decide that. I think by Super Tuesday, you’ll know what’s going on.”
Mr. Manchin has started an organization with his daughter called Americans Together, designed to elevate moderate voices. The New Hampshire swing was the first stop on what his team has called a listening tour — but he emphasized that his group was “completely different” from No Labels.
Throughout his appearances — at the breakfast, in speaking with reporters and at a diner where he was trailed by climate-focused protesters — Mr. Manchin denounced the far right and the far left (though any notion that Mr. Biden falls close to that category is risible to his many left-wing detractors).
He suggested that the country was interested in more options, but seemed uncomfortable directly engaging in talk of a third-party bid himself.
“I’m looking for, how do you bring the country together, how do we get people involved? And if that’s a decision to make, I’ll live with whatever decision,” he said in an interview.
As he wrapped up glad-handing at the diner in Derry, where he told a Republican fan that he did not know if he would run, a reporter asked if he could name one thing that appealed to him about a third-party bid and one thing that would give him pause.
The usually voluble senator smiled, declared that he was there to bring Americans together and walked away.