5 Takeaways From The New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Debate

Sanders skates by, Warren sticks to her story and Biden’s up-and-down performance.

MANCHESTER, N.H. ― Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has never been good at hiding her dislike of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. And at the Democratic debate here Friday night, she went directly for his voters.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg, whose Iowa caucus showing has given him a major boost in the polls here ahead of Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary, are competing for many of the same voters. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden are often in the mix as well, though Klobuchar and Buttigieg seem to be almost directly going head-to-head.)

On Friday night, Klobuchar decided to win them over by aggressively attacking another candidate they like, a strategy that risks alienating them. 

“I’m not a political newcomer with no record,” she said in her closing statement, a not-so-subtle reference to a college town mayor who took office with fewer than 11,000 votes.

“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us. I think having some experience is a good thing,” she said directly to Buttigieg earlier in the debate. (Buttigieg didn’t directly respond, since the moderator went to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont instead of to the former mayor.)

Klobuchar’s aggression was clearly a planned strategy. When a reporter noted Klobuchar had managed to attack Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg in a single answer on health care, a Klobuchar communications staffer noted it was an example of “big Amy energy.” 

The Minnesotan was not alone in her attacks on Buttigieg. Sanders also got in some direct swipes during an exchange over campaign finance: “I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign, coming from the pharmaceutical industry, coming from Wall Street.”

Buttigieg, for the most part, was able to defend against the attacks. But he had a particularly grim moment. When a moderator pressed him on his oversight of the police in South Bend on issues of race, his answer came off as robotic and practiced rather than articulate and thoughtful.

The overall focus on Buttigieg and Klobuchar during the debate means if there is real movement in the New Hampshire polls in the three days before Tuesday’s vote, it’s likely to involve Buttigieg voters switching to Klobuchar ― or maybe vice versa.

Here are four other takeaways from the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary debate:

Biden Wakes Up

Biden’s first answer of the night was a disaster. Asked about his recent criticisms of Sanders and Buttigieg, Biden instead chose to attack his own standing in the race.

“It’s a long race,” he said. “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here. Traditionally, Bernie won by 20 points last time. And usually it’s the neighboring senators that do well.”

It makes sense for Biden’s campaign to downplay his chances in New Hampshire. It doesn’t make sense for Biden, who is still leading in national polling and in position to do well in Nevada and South Carolina, to open up the debate in New Hampshire by downplaying his chances there.

Biden then went on to only half-heartedly deliver the attacks on Buttigieg’s experience and Sanders’s socialism that he delivered with gusto at a campaign event earlier in the week. 

But his performance quickly got better. His praise of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was ousted from the White House on Friday after he’d provided damaging testimony about President Donald Trump to the House Judiciary Committee, brought the crowd to its feet and is likely to earn plenty of replays on cable news. He also delivered a sharper attack on Sanders’s past opposition to gun control measures. 

It seems unlikely Biden’s performance was strong enough to turn around his performance in New Hampshire. But it might have been good enough to stanch the bleeding in other states. (Biden’s team said he raised more money on Friday than on any previous debate day.)

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) embraces Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Democratic presidential primary debate Fri
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) embraces Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Democratic presidential primary debate Friday in Manchester, New Hampshire.


Everybody Loves Bernie, Mostly

Sanders is a front-runner in New Hampshire and is still outperforming Buttigieg in most polling. But the other candidates in the race mostly let Sanders off the hook, reflecting both ongoing doubts about his ability to actually seize the nomination and the impossibility of wooing Sanders’s core supporters to their side.

Klobuchar declared she “likes Bernie just fine” and reminisced about working with him in the Senate on legislation regarding the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, while Biden even gave him a hug. Though Biden did criticize Sanders over guns and the cost of “Medicare for All,” that was the exception rather than the rule in a debate that was largely friendly to him.

Warren Has Her Story, And She’s Sticking To It

Warren’s core message is clear: The American government works better for the wealthy than it does for the middle class, and corruption is the reason why. It’s clear because it’s part of her stump speech, and she’s delivered a variant on the line in every single presidential debate so far.

Every answer Warren gave during the first hour of the debate on Friday night was part of her stump speech, part of a regular answer she gives to voters or a line she’s used on the debate stage before. As the debate went on, she began to mix it up with other candidates more. She quickly attacked Buttigieg over his record on race and policing in South Bend before moving on to an applause line about the importance of considering race when crafting policy. 

“We cannot just say criminal justice is the only time we want to talk about race specifically. We need to start having race-conscious laws,” she said, before outlining how her housing plan would help Black and Latino voters.

And she provided a subtle ― and questionable ― contrast with Sanders and other candidates by noting that “everyone on this stage except Amy and me is either a billionaire or is receiving help from a PAC.”

Part of this is that Warren simply had less speaking time than the other candidates: A New York Times analysis found she spoke for about 4 minutes less than Buttigieg and Sanders, and 3 minutes less than Biden. But Klobuchar ― who spoke for roughly the same amount of time as Warren ― was in the mix in a way Warren was not. 

But for the most part, Warren didn’t have the type of moment that will change her trajectory in the polling in either New Hampshire or nationally, and she needs one. The Progressive Campaign Change Committee, an outside group supporting her, called her race answer one that the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina “will remember.” But those voters might not even consider her unless she does well in New Hampshire.

Warren’s campaign hasn’t signaled any major change in strategy. It’s a curious approach, even if most Democrats do like Warren’s tried-and-true message about corruption.

Steyer Goes After South Carolina

Tom Steyer was in Manchester, but he had gone to (South) Carolina in his mind. The billionaire investor and businessman is polling in the low single digits in the Granite State, but his free-spending ways on television and radio in South Carolina have him competitive there, winning a significant portion of the Black vote in a state where Black voters dominate Democratic primaries. He’s also in a stronger position in the equally diverse state of Nevada.

Many of Steyer’s answers were clearly aimed more at any South Carolinians watching at home than the audience at St. Anselm College. He mentioned his support for reparations and shamed the other candidates for not discussing race more frequently. In his closing statement, he mentioned both Columbia, South Carolina, and Las Vegas ― and not any cities or towns in New Hampshire.

He also brought up a South Carolina political scandal that hadn’t received national attention, involving a state legislator who endorsed Steyer and is receiving payments from his campaign, comments from an oft-controversial Biden backer in the state and some backlash from Black state legislators there, challenging Biden to disavow his backer.

“One of the leaders of Joe Biden’s South Carolina campaign made racist remarks about our campaign,” Steyer said, challenging Biden to accompany him on a visit with the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. (Biden responded by noting that more Black state legislators in South Carolina had endorsed him than any other candidate.) That type of in-the-weeds story about an endorsement in South Carolina isn’t likely to matter to voters in a state more than 1,000 miles to the north.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Buttigieg had never won more than 10,000 votes. He did so in a statewide race in 2010 and in his first mayoral race in 2011.

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