US Sen. Manchin outlines pressure campaign against major presidential candidates

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Maverick Democratic Senator Joe Manchin on Monday said he believed that having a third-party candidate run in the 2024 U.S. presidential election would "threaten" the two major political parties into tacking towards more moderate positions as their only path to victory.

The former West Virginia governor left open the door to being just such a candidate, but said he had not yet decided whether to launch a third party bid under the "No Labels" banner.

In an interview sponsored by the self-described centrist group No Labels, Manchin enticed an audience in New Hampshire saying, "I love independent everything ... I'm the most independent Democrat you've ever met."

The No Labels event was held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.

New Hampshire is a regular stop for presidential hopefuls because of its early spot in the primary election calendar. Candidates see it as a way of building momentum early on if they perform well there.

Manchin has made a career in the Senate employing uncertainty about how he would vote on major legislation in the narrowly divided Senate in an attempt to steer bills in what he portrays as a more moderate direction.

Arguing the Republican Party has "gone too far right" and Democrats are now "too far left," Manchin said pushing the major party presidential candidates to the center "can't be done unless they're threatened."

He added, "The only way you can threaten is have people out there that say listen, either side can't win without the independent (voter)...that center-left, center-right, an independent Republican, an independent Democrat."

Former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a No Labels activist, said he hoped a third-party candidate would not be necessary in next year's race for the White House.

He added, however, that if by "Super Tuesday" in early March - when a series of state primary elections are held - it appears as if Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee and Joe Biden the Democrats' pick, "We will present a presidential and vice presidential candidate on a No Labels ticket ... but only if we see an opportunity to win."

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, in a statement ahead of the No Labels town hall event, accused the group of being "bankrolled by several high-profile Republican donors and supporters of former President Trump" in an attempt "to knock out President Biden and pave the way for another four years of scandal and division with Donald Trump."

Manchin, 75, is arguably the most conservative Democratic senator. He has told reporters he will wait until late this year before announcing whether he will seek re-election to his U.S. Senate seat representing West Virginia.

Should Manchin seek another term, he would likely face a serious challenge from Governor Jim Justice who is seeking the Republican Party nomination in the Senate race. The state has been leaning heavily Republican, having overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Trump, 77, leads a crowded field of Republican presidential aspirants and is waging a no-holds-barred campaign in which he continues to repeat the falsehood that he won the 2020 presidential election.

Many voters express worries about 80-year-old President Joe Biden seeking a second term. But speculation of an independent candidate entering the race generates heartburn among Democratic strategists who want the incumbent re-elected.

Opinion polling shows neither Democrats nor Republicans are thrilled with their likeliest 2024 White House candidates, with four in 10 Republicans telling a May Reuters/Ipsos poll that they think Trump should not run again in 2024, and a similar number of Democrats citing a similar view on Biden.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Alistair Bell, Howard Goller and Lincoln Feast.)