Democratic Hopefuls Scramble as New Hampshire Primary Nears
CONCORD, N.H. — Democratic presidential candidates, fresh off the most contentious debate of this nominating contest, plunged Saturday into a final weekend of campaigning before the New Hampshire primary, with two front-runners looking to score a clearer victory than their photo finish in Iowa and three others hoping to scramble back into contention.
Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who essentially tied in Iowa, were scheduled to campaign at a frenetic pace across the state, as new polls showed Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., gaining on Sanders, the Vermont senator.
Former Vice President Joe Biden focused on Manchester, even as his campaign struggled to regroup from a humbling fourth-place finish in Iowa.
During Friday night’s televised debate at St. Anselm College, Biden all but conceded defeat in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday with a blunt exercise in expectation-lowering, predicting he would “take a hit” here as he did in Iowa.
“I’ve been the front-runner all along; I’ve had that target on my back from the beginning,” he said in a post-debate interview on ABC. “The fact is, in New Hampshire I’m the underdog.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota tried to capitalize on a strong debate showing in which she offered some of the night’s most pointed criticism of Buttigieg’s inexperience while attempting to elbow her way from the back of the pack.
“She made the case for her optimistic, pragmatic plans for America — and why she’s our best chance to defeat Donald Trump,” her campaign said in a fundraising email touting Klobuchar’s debate performance.
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been outpaced by Sanders among the party’s progressive voters, is trying to broaden her appeal by casting herself as the candidate best equipped to unify the party’s left and center.
Warren did not get as much air time during the debate as the top three male candidates. She also had only only one full-scale campaign event scheduled for Saturday in advance of an all-candidate cattle call at a Democratic Party dinner in the evening.
As the candidates hit the trail, multiple polls showed an alignment not unlike the apparent results of the Iowa caucuses: Sanders with a narrow lead, Buttigieg gaining and roughly tied with Sanders in some surveys, Warren and Biden close together but trailing the leaders, and Klobuchar gaining ground but still behind.
The state’s voters, however, have long been known for making up their minds at the last minute and for sudden changes of heart. A poll earlier this week by Monmouth University found that only 49% of voters were firmly set in their choice.
New Hampshire officials are at pains to promise that their balloting — by traditional electoral methods, not by caucus — will not replicate the fiasco in Iowa, which was so riddled with delays and glitches that the national Democratic Party chairman, Tom Perez, has called on the state party to review its results.
The New Hampshire primary is more crowded and competitive than usual, thanks in part to the Iowa confusion. Typically, after the Iowa caucuses, poor-performing candidates drop out of the race. But because of the uncertainty about the precise outcome there, none have left. That is likely to change after New Hampshire votes.
Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a Sanders supporters, emphasized the importance of the primary as he spoke to volunteers preparing to canvass in Manchester.
“Normally, this is the first primary state,” he said, standing on top of a booth at a pub in downtown Manchester. “But now you are kind of the first and the second. You’re going to be everything.”
The Iowa muddle made it somewhat harder for Buttigieg and Sanders to capitalize on their strong showings, but this weekend they are making up for lost time: Buttigieg has three campaign events and two other quick stops scheduled before attending the party dinner. His events span the state from Concord, the state capital, to Lebanon in the northwestern part of the state.
Sanders has four events in advance of the dinner.
Buttigieg began the day at a forum on the courts and reproductive rights sponsored by pro-choice groups where a standing-room-only crowd that filled a community college gymnasium to hear a parade of presidential candidates greeted him warmly.
Buttigieg called for a “judicial branch that is above politics,” but showed his own appetite for partisan warfare, vowing to abolish the filibuster to work around Senate Republicans.
He contrasted himself to Trump, who he said uses Air Force One mainly to fly to various Trump-branded golf courses.
“I don’t even golf,” he added in an aside that drew cheers.
Buttigieg said he would use the presidential plane to fly to the states of intransigent senators, using “good old-fashioned political pressure to make sure they are more responsive.”
“If we can’t change Congress, we’re screwed,” he said, holding up Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s skillful obstruction of President Barack Obama’s initiatives as a rallying cry.
Buttigieg also touted his abortion rights bona fides, saying that even in cases of late-term abortion, he would want a woman’s choice to be paramount.
“That decision will not be made any better — medically or morally — because it is being dictated by some government official,” he said.
With Sanders maintaining a lead in state polls, Biden aides have suggested a victory for him here should be discounted because he lives next door, in Vermont, an argument dismissed as “unfair” by Sanders’ advisor Jeff Weaver.
“Joe Biden was vice president of the United States,” Weaver said. “A few people up here happen to know who he is.”
To justify his claim to be the most electable candidate, Weaver said, Biden “needs to put some wins on the board.”
But, by contrast to the frequent appearances by the top two candidates, Biden disappeared from the campaign trail in New Hampshire for two days this week, even though he risks a crippling loss of momentum if he has back-to-back fourth-place finishes.
He spent Thursday in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., and Friday out of sight in New Hampshire, preparing for the debate and sizing up the state of his foundering campaign. He restructured his campaign leadership, elevating Anita Dunn — a longtime Democratic strategist and Obama administration veteran — from her role as a senior communications advisor into a broader operational post.
Campaign officials, speaking to reporters in a background conference call Friday, tried to downplay the significance of the change, but it was clearly part of an effort to right the listing campaign ship.
“We’re adding talent at the top … to ensure we put forward our best effort,” said one campaign official. “This does not represent some dramatic shift in responsibility.”
Biden’s aides tout his long list of endorsements from influential Democrats in the state, including Bill Shaheen, a long-time party strategist who is married to popular Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Many New Hampshire political veterans say that approach will not suffice in a state accustomed to intense retail politics. Some view Biden’s campaign organization as thin, a complaint that also was commonly heard about his operation in Iowa.
Fred Kocher, a Republican-turned-independent who founded Politics and Eggs, a New Hampshire breakfast institution that invites political luminaries to speak, said Biden was the only major candidate in this cycle to decline an invitation to appear.
He contrasted that with when Biden attended a breakfast during his last presidential bid in 2008.
“When Biden came last time, he was vivacious, grabbed the microphone, walked around the audience,” Kocher said. “This time we couldn’t even get him to come.”
Symone Sanders, a Biden spokesman, warned against concluding a weak showing in New Hampshire would be a death knell for his candidacy. The Biden strategy all along has been to bank on a strong showing in Nevada on Feb. 22 and South Carolina on Feb. 29 — states with larger nonwhite populations, which plays to Biden’s strengths.
“All week, folks have been trying to write the obituary of our campaign,” she said after the debate. “They were wondering if Joe Biden was still in this race, and I think tonight, he put those questions to bed.”
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