The dilemma for Democratic voters is that no one candidate has yet persuaded more than a fraction of the party that they are capable of doing so. Democrats came out of Iowa splintered and demoralized, and Friday’s debate accentuated both the attributes each of the leading Democrats is offering and the limits of their appeal.
The debate plowed familiar ground, but there was an edge to it that was different from those of the recent past. Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, fresh reports emphasizing a strong economy and a new poll showing Trump’s approval at the highest point of his presidency only underscored the Democrats’ current plight.
What emerged were a series of questions that Democratic voters will be considering not just here in New Hampshire next week but in primaries and caucuses in the weeks ahead — questions from whether the party should move left or toward the center, to whether experience in Washington or freshness from outside would be more effective.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who finished in a virtual tie in Iowa’s bungled caucuses and appeared to be the two candidates to beat here, were principal targets of the others on the stage. And it was former vice president Joe Biden, the fourth-place finisher in Iowa, who helped lead the attack against them.
Biden warned that Sanders would put the entire party at risk because of his self-proclaimed agenda of democratic socialism. “I think that’s the label that the president’s going to lay on everyone running with Bernie, if he’s a nominee,” he said.
As for Buttigieg, he noted, “He’s a mayor of a small city who has done some good things, but has not demonstrated he has the ability to — and we’ll soon find out — to get a broad scope of support . . . including African Americans and Latinos.”
Sanders offered a different view. “It doesn’t matter what Donald Trump says,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs. It really is. People say terrible things about Joe. He has. Ugly, disgusting things about [Sen.] Elizabeth [Warren], about [Sen.] Amy [Klobuchar], about anybody else who’s up here.” But he said only he has the capacity to rally a new coalition of voters to take down Trump.
Klobuchar (Minn.) jumped in to challenge Sanders. “I think we are not going to be able to out-divide the divider-in-chief,” she said. “And I think we need someone to head up this ticket that actually brings people with her instead of shutting them out.”
When Buttigieg got his turn, he offered his own path. “I’m not interested in the labels,” he said. “I’m not interested in what Republicans are going to say. I’m interested in the style of politics that we need to put forward to actually finally turn the page, in order to win, yes, but also in order to govern.”
Biden acknowledged he “took a hit” in Iowa and predicted he would take another here next week, but insisted that when the first four contests are concluded, he will have demonstrated the support he has among all parts of the party. But given what happened in Iowa, Biden appeared more animated and forceful in his own defense and in challenging others than in past debates.
Klobuchar, who is still seeking a real breakthrough, had another strong performance Friday, challenging Sanders and others and arguing that her politics of the center and her determination to get results rather than try to impress voters with bold but perhaps unachievable programs are the best way to win.
Warren (Mass.), who ran third in Iowa, stuck to her anti-corruption message through much of the evening in the hope that she can distinguish herself both from Sanders and from the moderates in the field.
The debate came at the midpoint between the debacle of tabulating the results of the Iowa precinct caucuses and the acquittal of the president on the one hand, and next week’s critically important New Hampshire primary on the other.
The events of the past week left Democrats demoralized, more unsettled over their choices and worried about their prospects in November. Iowa upended the Democrats’ race, scrambling the field of candidates and giving a black eye to the party due to a breakdown in tabulating results, which continued to plague Iowa and national party officials throughout the week.
New Hampshire has been a proving ground for candidates for decades, a state that doesn’t necessarily settle the nomination but that points to which candidates will become the finalists.
No one who has finished lower than second in New Hampshire has ever gone on to win the nomination.
Whether that will hold this year is a wide-open question, given how fractured Democratic voters appear to be about their choices and the looming presence of Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, who has chosen to skip the first four contests while spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the states with primaries in March and beyond.
For Democrats, this is now becoming a time of real testing. Iowa scrambled things in unexpected ways, and the president is doing everything he can to seize the advantage as the opposition party wrestles not only with who their best candidate might be but also with what strategies are best suited to counter an incumbent who plays by different rules.
Friday’s debate left that little clearer than before, and it will be left to Democratic voters to start to sort it out.