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Biden and Warren shift strategies after Iowa ‘gut punch’

Former vice president Joe Biden said in Somersworth, N.H., on Feb. 5 that his presidential campaign received a "gut punch" in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. (Video: Reuters)

CONCORD, N.H. — Two top campaigns acknowledged on Wednesday that they were facing difficulties following disappointing results in Iowa, as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both began recalibrating their strategies for a seven-day sprint in New Hampshire.

Biden went on the attack against two candidates who placed above him in the caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, portraying both as unelectable. He admitted that Monday’s caucuses represented a “gut punch” to a campaign that was once a clear national front-runner.

“I am not going to sugarcoat it,” he told a standing-room-only crowd at a VFW hall in Somersworth, N.H. “We took a gut punch in Iowa. The whole process took a gut punch. But look, this isn’t the first time in my life I’ve been knocked down.”

Warren pulled nearly $500,000 worth of TV ads that had been scheduled to run in Nevada and South Carolina after a disappointing third-place standing in Iowa failed to provide a fundraising bump on which her campaign had counted.

“I just always want to be careful about how we spend our money,” Warren (D-Mass.) said Wednesday after being asked about the significant retrenchment in states that will vote after Tuesday’s primary here.

The results in Iowa — which have dribbled out over days after technological problems prevented a quick count — have led to a reordering of the Democratic presidential primary race here in a critical stretch of the campaign.

Sanders and Buttigieg are relishing a boost of energy and attention. Their finishes — in incomplete results, Buttigieg led in delegate measurements and Sanders in the popular vote — sharply escalated the stakes for Biden and Warren and could trigger a more combative debate in Manchester, N.H., on Friday night.

The Biden campaign is not expected to undergo a broad staff shake-up, but there was mounting frustration within it over how his Iowa team performed, with many blaming it for not building a better organization in such an important state.

Jake Braun, Biden’s Iowa state director, is not expected to continue to serve as a full-time campaign employee.

Braun, who had served as national deputy field director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, had been hired in May to oversee Biden’s operation in Iowa. The campaign also did not retain Adrienne Bogen, who was overseeing the Iowa field operation, a staffing decision first reported by Politico.

The Biden campaign said neither move was connected to the Iowa results. In an interview, Braun said that for family and professional reasons, he was going back to teaching at the University of Chicago. He will return to the campaign as a consultant, a campaign spokesperson said.

“I want to do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump, and so I was willing to take this time away from my family,” Braun said in an interview. “There was no way with my family situation I could bounce around the Super Tuesday states.”

With 96 percent of the Iowa precincts in, Buttigieg held 26.4 percent of the state delegate equivalents, followed by Sanders with 25.7 percent.

Sanders’s popular vote lead stood at 43,674 to But­tigieg’s 42,175. Warren was third in Iowa, with 18.3 percent of the delegates, and Biden, in his third bid for president, had 15.8 percent.

In the hours after the caucuses, before the numbers began to be made public, Warren’s senior aides said the top three finishers were bunched together, with Biden a distant fourth. Joe Rospars, her top strategist, chided other campaigns for releasing “incomplete numbers” that he said were “contributing to the chaos and misinformation.”

In the official results so far, Warren was actually a distant third, closer to Biden than she was to Buttigieg and Sanders. She was ahead in only one of the state’s 99 counties, where she was clinging to a narrow lead over Sanders. Her finish raised questions about the strength of an organization that had been heralded for a year as the best in the state — and her theory going forward that her grass-roots support is strong enough to propel her.

Warren’s team alluded to money problems in a fundraising pitch Tuesday in which the campaign said that the lack of a clear result from Iowa — and the focus on how the systems there failed rather than the campaigns — had affected fundraising.

“Even though the initial numbers in Iowa look good, they’re not final,” according to the fundraising email signed by “Team Warren.” “And since they were announced today instead of last night, we didn’t get a big night of exciting news coverage about them (or the late-night boost in fundraising that usually comes with it).”

In another shift, her top aides, who typically don’t attack others publicly, called out one of But­tigieg’s strategists Wednesday on Twitter, saying he was trying to use the platform to signal to a supportive super PAC where to put resources.

Michael Halle, a Buttigieg adviser who sent out a tweet on the social network Wednesday saying that messages about the candidate’s military experience “work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus.”

“Did you mean to tweet out this instruction to your super PAC,” wrote Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau. The super PAC he appeared to be referring to, VoteVets PAC, issued a statement saying its officials “independently decide” their ad strategy.

Buttigieg’s campaign said in a responding statement that veterans “have been central to propelling” the former naval intelligence officer, and “if the largest progressive veterans group wants to help spread the word about his service we welcome it.”

For Biden, whose central argument in this primary contest has been that he’s best equipped to defeat President Trump in November, the Iowa results put even more pressure on his campaign here.

Biden, who prizes his skills in nurturing personal connections, had a dismal showing in a state known for its retail politics. The campaign watched in dismay as he failed to even reach a 15 percent viability threshold in many precincts across Iowa, after earlier bragging he would place that high nearly everywhere.

During an event in Somersworth, he dedicated a significant chunk of his speech to attacking his rivals.

He painted Sanders as an ineffective politician who has not led the charge on passing any major piece of legislation, including his signature health-care plan.

“Senator Sanders has been talking about a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health-care ­system in this country for 30 years,” Biden said. “To his credit, he’s been consistent. But he hadn’t moved the ball a single, solitary inch in the United States Congress.”

He said the majority of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), don’t support Sanders on the issue.

“So how is he going to pass it?” Biden said. “How is he going to get it passed? I don’t mean just to give another speech.”

Biden said his plan, which would expand on the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, is more feasible. “I can get it done right away,” he said.

Biden also said Sanders would face an uphill general-election battle because he calls himself a democratic socialist, saying that label would hurt candidates in down-ballot races.

“So when Sanders attacks me for having baggage, I have to tell you, the 60-plus candidates that I campaigned for in the toughest districts in the country just two years ago don’t see me as baggage. They wanted me in their districts,” Biden said. “I doubt whether many people asked Bernie Sanders to come in and campaign.” The former vice president offered similar criticism Wednesday night during a CNN town hall.

Of Buttigieg, Biden said that he respects the 38-year-old’s military service but that the party couldn’t nominate someone with so little experience.

“I do believe it’s a risk — to be just straight up with you — for this party and to nominate someone who’s never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana,” he said. “I do believe it’s a risk. He has enormous potential. But I think we need a president who can bring us together.”

Biden also more sharply criticized Buttigieg for lumping him in with the problems of Washington.

“Mayor Pete likes to attack me as well. He’s a good man. Calls me part of the old, failed Washington,” Biden said, before listing a variety of accomplishments including the Affordable Care Act and Iran nuclear deal.

“Is he really saying the Obama-Biden administration was a failure?” Biden asked. “Pete, just say it out loud.”

In an interview set to air Thursday on MSNBC, Buttigieg praised the achievements of the Obama administration, while indicating he believes the former vice president has less claim to those accomplishments than he takes with voters.

“I have enormous regard for those achievements. If you look at what President Obama was able to do in two terms, it was extraordinary,” Buttigieg said. “But I think the bulk of the credit for the achievements of the Obama administration belong with President Obama.”

Several top Biden campaign advisers say they are trying to refocus the race in New Hampshire and view it as a state that may be more receptive than Iowa was to candidates lobbing attacks at one another.

The state also has a history of rewarding underdog and comeback candidates, something they are trying to promote. They still view Sanders and Warren as front-runners in the state but are pointing to Nevada as a crucial place for him to get a victory. Losing the first three states, they concede, could be difficult to survive.

“We’re going to speak very forcefully and clearly about health care,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser. “But we’re also going to contrast ourselves with other candidates. And then, yeah, we took a punch in Iowa, but we’re not going anywhere.”