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Buttigieg and other Democrats sharpen attacks before debate

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg this week at the United Food and Commercial Workers presidential  forum in Altoona, Iowa.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg this week at the United Food and Commercial Workers presidential forum in Altoona, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pete Buttigieg has been trying to signal for weeks that when it comes to health care, he is more moderate than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. But on Tuesday morning — hours before facing those rivals on a debate stage — Buttigieg went a step further, releasing a digital ad targeting Sanders and Warren by name.

“Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren believe that we have to force ourselves into Medicare-for-all, where private insurance is abolished,” the ad says. Buttigieg, in contrast, is “trying to focus on choice, not infringing on people’s freedom to make that decision voluntarily.”

It is just the latest example of the increasingly pointed shots the Democratic candidates have been taking at each other in the lead-up to their fourth debate, especially those who are running out of time to break into the top tier.

Buttigieg’s critiques have been particularly notable in recent days. His political persona has generally been that of a genial Midwesterner, but lately he has sharpened his words not only against Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders (I-Vt.), but also with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and others.

Buttigieg, 37, has posted impressive fundraising numbers but remains solidly in the second tier — and the single digits — in most polls. In staking out more moderate policy positions than Warren and Sanders, he has cast himself as a potential alternative to former vice president Joe Biden.

Behind him are a slew of other candidates who also appear to be waiting for Biden to falter so they can take on the mantle of field’s leading centrist. That’s led to a series of sharp exchanges in advance of Tuesday’s debate in Westerville, Ohio — – including from Biden. “We’re not electing a planner,” Biden said last week, a thinly veiled jab at Warren, who has made “I have a plan for that” a core refrain in her stump speeches..

In recent weeks, Buttigieg has called a proposal by O’Rourke for a mandatory buyback of AR-15 and AK-47 weapons “a shiny object” that would distract from other, more realistic gun law reform efforts.

O’Rourke, who seized on gun control as a top priority after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso in August left 22 dead, called Buttigieg’s comments “offensive” to gun violence victims and has repeatedly described the mayor as prioritizing political calculation over doing “the right thing.”

“I really hope that he and other candidates can see that if we’re serious about saving the lives of our fellow Americans, then we have to be serious about the action that we want to take as president,” O’Rourke told reporters in Los Angeles earlier this month. “The old way, of triangulating, poll testing, focus-group-driving your way to an answer just is not going to work for America.”

Buttigeig brushed off the criticism in an interview released Monday with host Peter Hamby of the Snapchat series “Good Luck America.

“I get it — he needs to pick a fight in order to stay relevant,” Buttigieg said of O’Rourke.

He also suggested some of his rivals’ ambitious plans are not politically viable. “My focus right now is on getting something done,” Buttigieg said. “I just don’t think we should wait to have a fight over confiscation when we can win on background checks and assault weapons bans and red-flag laws right now.”

But Buttigieg’s use of the word “confiscation” irked two other Democratic primary candidates, who accused him of using right-wing talking points on guns.

“Calling buyback programs ‘confiscation’ is doing the NRA’s work for them, @PeteButtigieg — and they don’t need our help,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said on Twitter Tuesday.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) added, “Leaving more than 5 million assault weapons on the street isn’t a ban, it’s a Band-Aid.”

O’Rourke leveled another charge. “Pete can belittle the grass roots; he can call buybacks a ‘shiny object.’ He can say whatever he wants, but guns kill 40,000 people each year. Those people deserve action. I’ll be fighting for them,” he tweeted.

The “grass roots” comment referred to yet another spat among the Democrats, one that arose after Warren vowed last week to eschew big-dollar donors if she is the Democratic presidential nominee.

Buttigieg knocked Warren’s fundraising strategy as one that would be ineffective in the general election, saying the Democratic nominee needs to have “the full spectrum of support” to go against someone as well-financed as President Trump.

“My competitors can go with whatever strategy they like, but we’re going to make sure that we have the resources to compete, because we are going up against the sitting president of the United States,” Buttigieg told Hamby. “He has tremendous amounts of support and allies at his back, and we’re not going to beat him with pocket change.”

The candidates have occasionally targeted each other before this, including an attack by Harris on Biden on racial issues at the first debate. But the recent sniping appears to mark a new phase in a race that has largely been characterized by a unified Democratic field going after Trump.

Buttigieg’s campaign said he was not leveling personal attacks, only highlighting his policy differences with others in the field.

But sometimes the attacks are fairly pointed. On health care, Buttigieg accuses Warren and Sanders of not trusting the American people to choose the right health care plans for themselves. Buttigieg’s plan would create a government-run “public option” but would not abolish private insurance, allowing people to choose between the two.

A Buttigieg campaign official also pointed to Buttigieg’s high favorability ratings, as well as his progress in Iowa polls, and said they are not concerned Buttigieg’s more aggressive shift will cost him support.

Warren, who has risen steadily in the polls and now leads in some of them, has avoided responding directly to Buttigieg. Hours before the debate, she doubled down on her fundraising strategy by saying she would no longer accept contributions of more than $200 from executives at “big tech companies, big banks, private equity firms or hedge funds,” a limit she had already set for fossil fuel and “big pharma” executives.

The Warren campaign said the rule was retroactive and that they intend to return donations that do not meet the new guidelines.

Warren’s campaign raised $24.6 million in the year’s third quarter, just shy of the $25.3 million raised by Sanders, who is also foregoing corporate and big-dollar donations. Buttigieg raised $19.1 million in the same period.