Rival candidates sharpened their attacks on Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg on the debate stage Friday night, but the two candidates leading the pack came ready for battle as New Hampshire prepares to vote in what has become a chaotic and fluid presidential primary.
Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., whose rapid ascent has rattled the Democratic presidential field, cast doubt on the viability of his more seasoned top-tier rivals before they could get their first jabs in.
He painted former Vice President Joe Biden, who is vying to reignite a sputtering campaign, as an old-school politician not equipped to take on the “fundamentally new problem” of President Trump. Buttigieg characterized Sanders, the Vermont senator, as an unyielding ideologue whose politics can’t unite the country.
The veteran politicians, along with fellow septuagenarian Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, took aim at Buttigieg’s inexperience, his rocky relations with African American voters in his community, and his deep support from Wall Street donors.
With the Democratic Party reeling from its voting system meltdown at the Iowa caucuses, and its anxiety over candidate electability heightened following Trump’s Senate impeachment acquittal, the debate at St. Anselm College marked the final face-off before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary election, and it posed potentially critical stakes for several candidates.
Warren, making an unsubtle apparent reference to Buttigieg, said, “I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns” should be able to “buy their way into a nomination.”
Warren is eager to regain momentum she had earlier in the race, especially given her third-place showing in Iowa and lackluster polling numbers in her neighboring state of New Hampshire. Biden, who entered the race a favorite with an aura of inevitability, has been steadily losing altitude as voters gravitate to Buttigieg and Sanders, who both beat him decisively in Iowa.
But if Biden was looking for a breakout moment on the debate stage that could supercharge a comeback, he didn’t seem to find it. The former vice president was overshadowed for much of the night by the more forceful Sanders and the more agile Buttigieg.
Biden was most effective when he launched into Sanders over his record on gun safety.
He sharply criticized the Vermont senator for his record of voting to shield gun manufacturers from liability. He said that while Sanders was representing his gun rights constituency in Vermont, Americans in other states “were getting killed by the thousands during this same period.”
By contrast, Biden said, he hailed from Delaware, a state with many gun owners, but he still pushed for laws requiring background checks and banning assault weapons.
“I’m the only guy that beat the NRA twice,” Biden said.
Sanders, who is known for his decades-long political consistency, conceded that on one core issue for progressives — gun safety — he’s had a change of heart.
He owed his past opposition to gun control measures such as background checks to being from Vermont, a rural state with a hunting tradition and historically lax firearms laws.
“I represented that perspective,” Sanders said, adding that residents in his state and across the country are now incensed by mass shootings and gun violence. “The world has changed and my views have changed.”
Sanders, who faced criticism for positions he took during his 2016 presidential bid, said he now backs universal background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons.
Biden said that change of heart wasn’t sufficient.
Buttigieg, who has struggled with African American support back home and across the country, faced one of his toughest moments when moderator Linsey Davis grilled him about racial disparities in criminal justice that occurred during his tenure as mayor of South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana.
He was pushed on why black residents in South Bend were four times more likely than white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession while he was mayor. Buttigieg argued that drug arrests went down while he was mayor but conceded that “there is no question that systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system, and my city was not immune.”
He cited the strategies he pursued to confront the disparities. When Warren was asked whether Buttigieg suitably answered the question, she didn’t flinch. “No,” she said. “You have to own up to the facts.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer of California and New York businessman Andrew Yang were also on the debate stage. They worked to breathe oxygen into campaigns that have had their moments but are now suffocating from a shortage of voter support.
Klobuchar was particularly effective, positioning herself as a candidate who, like Buttigieg, can appeal to voters in the industrial Midwest, but who comes to the race with considerably more experience and deal-making prowess.
“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” she said. “I think having some experience is a good thing.”
Despite peppering Biden with criticisms all night, Buttigieg flatly declined to call him a bad choice for Democrats because of Republican attacks on Biden’s son Hunter, whose former position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company was an issue Republicans tried to exploit during Trump’s impeachment inquiry and trial.
“We’re not going to let them change the subject,” Buttigieg said. “This is not about Hunter Biden, or Vice President Biden or any Biden. This is about abuse of power by the president.”
He laced into Trump for attempting to “weaponize a son against his own father,” calling the effort “unbelievably dishonorable.”
Biden thanked Buttigieg for the defense and warned that “whomever the nominee is, the president is going to make up lies about them.”
He then turned his aim on Trump, lambasting him for ousting Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, top Ukraine advisor on the National Security Council and a key witness in the House impeachment proceedings.
“He should be pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh,” Biden said, a nod to the Medal of Freedom that Trump bestowed on the right-wing radio host at the State of the Union speech Tuesday. He then exhorted the crowd to give Vindman a standing ovation; the audience noisily complied.
The candidates engaged in a now familiar back-and-forth on the viability of “Medicare for all.” Asked how he would unify the country, Sanders pointed to his call for a government-run health insurance program and his plan to combat the pharmaceutical drug industry.
“I think there’s a better way,” Buttigieg said when asked whether Sanders’ plan would bring people together. He said the American people are ready to tackle health insurance and drug costs, “just so long as we don’t command people to accept a public plan if they don’t want to.”
Biden challenged Sanders on the cost of his plan. “How much is it gonna cost? Who’s gonna pay for it?” Biden asked. “If you ask Bernie that, he says, ‘Go figure, I don’t know, we’ll find out.’”
Sanders said Biden’s plan would continue the status quo. “What Medicare for all will do is save the average American substantial sums of money. Substantial,” Sanders said. “It’ll be much less expensive” than Biden’s plan, he added.
There was more agreement on the stage when discussion turned to one candidate who was not at the debate Friday night, billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York City has soared into the upper tier in national polling after entering in November and spending with abandon on political advertising.
“I didn’t come from money,” Klobuchar said, as she cast doubt on Bloomberg’s appeal to contend with Trump. “And I just simply think people don’t look at the guy in the White House and say, ‘Can we get someone richer?’”
Klobuchar emphasized her history of winning elections and offered some flashes of humor.
“We have a president that literally blames everyone. He blames the king of Denmark. Who does that? He blames the prime minister of Canada for, he claims, cutting him out of the Canadian version of ‘Home Alone 2.’ Who does that?!”