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5 takeaways from the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire

After the muddle in Iowa came the mash-up in Manchester.

Seven candidates who met the fundraising and polling criteria set by the Democratic National Committee took the stage Friday night at St. Anselm College for the presidential campaign’s eighth round of debates.

With the impact of Iowa’s caucuses diminished by the botched release of results, New Hampshire has gained even more import in the party’s nominating fight.

The result was a lively, often combative 2 1/2-hour session just four days before the Granite State hosts the nation’s first primary on Tuesday.

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Here are five takeaways:

Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden
From left, Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden at the debate in Manchester, N.H.
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

Buttigieg takes incoming

Welcome to the top of the heap, Pete Buttigieg.

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The former South Bend, Ind., mayor came into the debate on a burst of momentum from his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, then ran smack into a pack of rivals eager to cut the 38-year-old political wunderkind down to size.

Billionaire Tom Steyer, he of no government experience, said he was worried about Buttigieg’s lack of government experience. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar derided him as a “cool newcomer” — the “cool” part ripe with condescension — who was taking cheap shots at Washington.

Joe Biden dissed Buttigieg’s youth and said, in essence, what’s wrong with the good old days of Obama-Biden?

“I don’t know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad,” the former vice president said, no doubt mindful of his former running mate’s continued great popularity among Democrats. “What happened? What is it that he wants to do away with?”

Buttigieg managed to keep, yes, his cool and delivered a pointed riposte, touting the outside-the-Beltway credentials that, for some, are a large part of his appeal.

“If you are looking for the person with the most Washington establishment experience under your belt,” he responded, “you’ve got your candidate and it’s not me.”

Biden grinned, apparently seeing that one coming from a mile away.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In New Hampshire Ahead Of First Primary Contest
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during the debate.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
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Biden steps up

After a humbling fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Biden must greatly improve his performance in New Hampshire to keep his campaign on track.

So the first thing he did was attempt to lower expectations.

“I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” he said in the first moments of the debate, noting that two candidates — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have the advantage of coming from neighboring states.

With that out of the way, he turned in a much feistier performance than in the past, taking on Sanders and Buttigieg in more direct, personal terms.

He faulted Sanders for not saying how much his “Medicare for all” proposal would cost. He suggested that Buttigieg was too young and green to be president.

They were familiar lines of attack, but delivered with greater passion. Boasting of his decades-long political career, Biden all but shouted — with no small amount of hyperbole — “I”ve been part of every major initiative!”

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Bernie, redux

Close your eyes. Listen closely. The sound could have been Bernie Sanders speaking in 2016, or at any one of the umpteen campaign events he has held since them.

The unvaried message is a large part of the Vermont senator’s appeal to supporters, who find reassurance in the repetitious bashing of billionaires and vows to chase the moneyed class from their perch and create an economy that works for all.

But the Iowa caucuses showed the limits of that approach. Though Sanders ran strongly among voters who supported him four years ago, he did poorly among new caucusgoers and those who backed his opponent four years ago, Hillary Clinton.

On Friday night, Sanders didn’t offer a whole lot new to attract converts or lure fresh supporters. In one of many characteristic moments, he brought a discussion of electability around to two staples of his economic populist campaign.

“The way you bring people together is to make it clear that we’re not going to give tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations,” Sanders roared, his hands fluttering in emphasis.

“And I’ll tell you something else,” he went on. “The way you bring people together is by ending the international disgrace of this country being the only major nation on Earth not to guarantee healthcare for all people as a human right.”

Sanders won 61% of the New Hampshire vote four years ago against Clinton but seems unlikely to come anywhere near that performance in this large field. The calculation seems to be that a rock-solid base of roughly 25% to 30% of the electorate may be enough to deliver a win Tuesday night.

That, however, is viewing his debate performance through a strategic lens. The simple explanation is that Sanders deeply believes what he says, and always has.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In New Hampshire Ahead Of First Primary Contest
Elizabeth Warren at Friday’s debate.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Warren mixes things up

In previous debates she scolded Buttigieg for raising money in a swanky Napa Valley wine cave. She snubbed Sanders, refusing to shake his hand after they differed over whether he’d said a woman can’t win the White House.

But on Friday night, Elizabeth Warren largely came in peace.

Given an early chance to jab at Sanders, she declined, airily telling moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC that the two have been friends for a long time and agree on some issues and disagree on others.

While several on the stage took turns pummeling Buttigieg, the Massachusetts senator stood by silently. When the discussion turned heated over healthcare, she soothingly chimed in, “We need to bring the most help to the most people as quickly as we can” and spoke of strengthening the Affordable Care Act and using an executive order to bring down drug prices.

(No mention of Medicare for all, the political minefield that left her badly wounded when Warren changed from all-out support to a go-slow approach.)

If the idea was to present a calming contrast with the others brawling on stage, Warren managed to do so.

But as the debate wore on, she turned more aggressive, declaring there is no place for a billionaire, like former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, to buy his way into the White House, and criticizing unnamed others who “suck up to billionaires.”

Later, she poked at Buttigieg when he was challenged about the racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession when he was mayor. After Buttigieg’s lengthy response, Warren was asked if he’d given a substantial answer.

“No,” she said tartly. “You have to own up to the facts.”

But passivity has a price, as the greatest time and attention goes to the candidates throwing off the most sparks. Early on, Warren disappeared for long stretches of the debate.

She limped into New Hampshire after a third-place finish in Iowa and, like Biden, needs a strong showing Tuesday to resuscitate her hopes. It’s not clear how much her little-bit-hot, little-bit-cold performance helped.

APphoto_APTOPIX Election 2020 Debate
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during a lighter moment at the debate.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Feisty, but also funny

The debate was way too long, but it wasn’t the snoozer the candidates put on last month in Iowa.

The exchanges were filled with harsher, more direct attacks. Candidates were on edge, more passionate, in more of a hurry to get their words out.

But there were also light moments, as when Biden hugged Sanders after a moderator brought up a recent comment by Clinton that “nobody” liked or wanted to work with him.

And after a lot of tense exchanges between Buttigieg and Biden, the former mayor gave a gracious answer when asked about the political risks that might be posed by President Trump’s allegations about the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.

He didn’t take the bait.

“No, we’re not going to let them change the subject,” Buttigieg said firmly. “This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or anybody. This is about an abuse of power by the president.”

Biden thanked him, something you don’t often see in debates.

It’s down to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Meet the two remaining contenders fighting for the Democratic nomination and to face President Trump in 2020.


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