In this edition: A wrap-up of a status quo debate, a Democratic argument about the courts, and the first real Biden-Buttigieg skirmish.

If a campaign only releases an ad on Twitter, does that mean Twitter is real life? This is The Trailer.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — The eighth Democratic debate was one of the most substantive yet, pushing the candidates to talk about issues they had desperately wanted to discuss for a year: climate change, racial justice, abortion rights. It completely swerved around the party's debacle in Iowa, where two campaigns still disagree over who really “won.” (Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez was slated to come to a post-debate spin room but never appeared.) And it did not have the moment of disaster or triumph that campaigns often look to for clues of who can grab pre-primary momentum. Here's what mattered.

Amy Klobuchar did exactly what she needed. It's become a cliche at this point: Democrats walk on debate stage, Democrats walk off debate stage, Klobuchar is declared the clear winner. That has kept the senator from Minnesota in this race as other moderate torch-carriers flamed out, but it has not pushed her into the top tier. On Friday, Klobuchar grabbed every opportunity, taking special glee in attacking Pete Buttigieg, and no Democrat effectively tried to stop her.

The pattern was clear early in the night, when Klobuchar made an argument honed in previous debates: Medicare-for-all was a distraction. “It is not real, Bernie, because two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate are not on your bill and because it would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance in four years,” she said. Sanders did not bother to push back. Not long after, Klobuchar went after Buttigieg for remarks he had made in Iowa, remarks that few voters had seen, in which he dismissed the impeachment hearings and Senate trial as a Washington distraction.

“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” Klobuchar said. “I think having some experience is a good thing.” Like Sanders, Buttigieg simply didn't push back.

The path ahead for Klobuchar in New Hampshire is obvious: convince moderate voters, who already like her, that she could win the nomination, and that a vote for her would not be an assist to a Sanders plurality victory Tuesday. Nobody tried to stop her from doing that, and in the first 14 hours after the debate, Klobuchar reported raising $2 million.

Nobody has figured out how to attack Bernie Sanders. At least five of the Democrats who were onstage are polling behind the senator from Vermont in New Hampshire, and none of them made a compelling case for what they believe: that he would lose the election in November if he won the nomination. Not even Buttigieg, the only rival who has topped Sanders in a recent tracking poll, made a concise case that Sanders would be a risk. 

“The biggest risk we could take at a time like this would be to go up against that fundamentally new challenge by trying to fall back on the familiar or trying to unite this country at a moment when we need that kind of unification, when our nominee is dividing people with the politics that says, if you don't go all the way to the edge, it doesn't count, a politics that says it's my way or the highway,” Buttigieg said. Sanders popped that word cloud easily (“I have never said that”) and plowed ahead.

Sanders's coalition in New Hampshire, smaller than it was in 2016 when he got 60 percent of the vote, consists of liberal and left-wing Democrats who agree with him on policy, and independents who think he can disrupt the political system. He needs only one-third of the vote, perhaps less, to win Tuesday, and his biggest threat is consolidation behind one more moderate candidate. Klobuchar's strength made that less likely, while no one weakened Sanders at all.

Everybody has figured out how to attack Pete Buttigieg. It's unclear if it worked, but the strategy has been clarified over last night's debate and last month's debate: Poke at Buttigieg's record in politics, and he becomes gauzier and more defensive. It was moderators, not rival candidates, who did the most with this last night, as Buttigieg first claimed that marijuana possession arrests had dropped under his mayoralty in South Bend, then, when reminded that it had not, said that his city had decided that “drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder.”

Buttigieg did not have a bad night. He was riding high off a strong Iowa finish and got chance after chance to emphasize his service in the U.S. Navy Reserve, a unique advantage in this race. He knew that Sanders would attack him over high-dollar fundraising and brought the issue back to Republicans: “Donald Trump, according to news reports, and his allies raised $25 million today. We need to go into that fight with everything that we've got.”

What Buttigieg did not do, and what he used to do, was rebut and parry with his critics. Judging when and when not to counterpunch is one of the hardest tasks in this primary; it's a multicandidate race, and candidates who have tried to rise above attacks (Kamala Harris) have suffered just as much as lower-polling candidates who tried to make a splash (Julián Castro).

Biden can't wait to get to Nevada and South Carolina. The former vice president delivered sparky answers all night, thrilling his supporters when he urged the crowd to stand up in support for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment hearings who the president removed from his post after the Senate's acquittal vote. None of it undid the impact of his first answer, to a question about whether Democrats had voted for risk in Iowa by supporting Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.

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

Biden led in polls of New Hampshire from May through much of August but has struggled for a foothold ever since. With less than 100 hours left before the vote, he's simply lowering expectations, waiting for the race to get to more diverse states and for at least one or two more rivals to get out of his of his way, as he consolidates nonwhite voters.

“I think this state is actually a state that also probably tracks pretty good for Pete Buttigieg given its demographic makeup,” said Symone Sanders, Biden's national press secretary, when the debate was over. “What I'm saying is, we continue to be competitive. We're going be competitive. Whatever happens here in New Hampshire, we're going on to Nevada. We're not giving up on New Hampshire by any means.”

Warren is looking past New Hampshire, too. The senator from Massachusetts did not have a breakout moment last night, but nothing went terribly wrong, either. She did not pull herself into any of the arguments between candidates unless asked. One result was that she got less time to speak than two candidates she had run ahead of in Iowa, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar. Her endorsers said that this was a choice.

“She has a lot of class,” said Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico. “She's going to hop in when she has something to say.”

Warren had slipped into the background of debates before, with no harm done. More telling was what she’d decided to talk about at length: racial justice, writ large and in Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend. 

Warren’s campaign does not see New Hampshire as a must-win state, despite the poor record of candidates from neighboring states who did not win the first primary. (Klobuchar’s fifth place showing in Iowa, which might have been viewed as a disappointment before, has kept her in the race.) It does see her as a possible consensus candidate once the race gets to more diverse states, where Buttigieg and Klobuchar have struggled to connect beyond their base of white liberals and moderates.

That is not where Warren hoped to be by now. It's not where Biden hoped to be by now. Of the candidates onstage who have either led in New Hampshire polls or are rising in them now — that excludes Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer — only Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar had the kind of night that can move votes quickly.

Reading list

Democrats clash on electability and policy in blistering presidential debate, by Matt Viser, Michael Scherer, Chelsea Janes and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

What else happened in Goffstown.

New Hampshire pollsters on high alert after Iowa flop, by Steven Shepard

How to not screw up again.

Democrats fight over who is best able to beat a newly emboldened President Trump, by Dan Balz

A debate that took place amid fresh worries about November.

New Hampshire voters to pundits: We don't need your stinking lanes, by David Corn

Why voters are so unsettled.

Buttigieg’s Iowa success unleashes emotion and commentary on his gay identity, by Chelsea Janes

A historic moment finally gets treated that way.

On the trail

CONCORD, N.H. — The final Saturday of pre-primary campaigning here began with a forum entirely about the judicial system, after years of fresh arguments about how to put more liberals on the courts and months of grumbling that the question wasn't getting asked in high-profile ways.

Eight of the 10 Democrats competing here made it to the Our Rights, Our Courts forum, which rarely veered off course. (Only Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard found somewhere else to be, and, to be fair, other rooms might have had fewer political tourists unable to vote in the primary.) 

Every candidate was asked about the successful Republican campaign to block President Barack Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat and a hundred-plus seats on lower courts. Nearly every candidate was asked whether they would upend the court system itself, as a break-the-glass solution to conservative appointments.

“Democrats just didn't focus on this,” Elizabeth Warren said, in one of the more quiet and matter-of-fact interviews of the day. “Democrats left open seats, Democrats delayed, Democrats just did not make it a priority.”

Court reform has scrambled the primary like few other issues. Pete Buttigieg, right now the dominant “moderate” candidate in the race, first perked up liberal activists by calling for the Supreme Court to be expanded. Bernie Sanders, the race's dominant leftist, has been cautious about doing anything to change the structure of the judicial system, worrying that it would lead to a court appointment arms race.

“Do we do what FDR did and pack the courts?” Sanders asked, rhetorically. “I think we don't. The point is, a Democrat adds two more judges. The next guy comes in, maybe a Republican, and suddenly you have 87 members of the Supreme Court. I think that delegitimizes the court.”

Only two candidates, both of them senators, suggested that the judicial wars had gotten out of hand and that Democrats would need to fix the system by restoring the system. Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado delivered a familiar jeremiad against the Democrats who had filibustered Neil M. Gorsuch in early 2017, arguing that it would have been harder for Republicans to break the 60-vote rule had they waited until the far more controversial Kavanaugh confirmation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar suggested that the Obama administration did not fully anticipate Republican resistance in 2009. “My job will be to anticipate that,” she said, promising to prioritize court appointments as fast as possible in her presidency.

The overall mood was gloomy, by design. “Really, what we want to hear from people is that they understand that there's been a long-term strategy to politicize the courts,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, the pro-abortion-rights group that co-sponsored the forum. “We're going be left with that problem no matter what happens in the election in 2020.”

Buttigieg, having identified the problem in 2017, said it was still worth talking about reform or court expansion, though all in the goal of creating a less partisan court.

“There was a time when a Republican justice or a justice appointed by a Republican president did not always function as a Republican justice,” Buttigieg said. “More like [Anthony] Kennedy, and less like [Brett M.] Kavanaugh who is a partisan figure. I mean, just look at his confirmation. So as we're looking to the future of the court, we've got to look for ways to separate day-to-day partisan politics from the appointment process.”

That left Andrew Yang as the only candidate advocating a real change, quickly, in how many justices SAT on the highest court. Justices should have retirement ages, he said, and each president should get only two appointments, so that the court would reflect the will of voters but be expanded slowly.

“The fact it's nine right now is frankly just a coincidence,” Yang said of the Supreme Court. “If you had 15, 17 and they were rotating regularly, then if they stepped down it would not be such a political war that breaks out."

Dems in disarray

Joe Biden himself did not spend much time attacking Pete Buttigieg on Friday, apart from a reference to how the 2009 stimulus package benefited South Bend, Ind., where Buttigieg would become mayor. Buttigieg had written as much in his memoirs, but it was a blink-and-you-miss it exchange that didn't change story lines out of the debate.

Thirteen hours after the debate was over, his campaign rectified that, releasing the most purely negative video any campaign has made to attack another Democrat in this primary. Over 108 seconds, it contrasts the highlights of the Obama-Biden years with the menial successes of Buttigieg's mayoralty, cutting between Biden's work on the Iran nuclear deal and Buttigieg deregulating pet chip scanners. 

“This video now has more views than the population of South Bend,” tweeted Biden's digital director, Rob Flaherty.

“While Washington politics trivializes what goes on in communities like South Bend, South Bend residents who now have better jobs, rising income, and new life in their city don't think their lives are a Washington politician's punchline,” Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher responded.

The ad is not running on TV, and Biden has had a relatively light TV presence up to this point. But it's getting discussed and shared and can shape conversations about Buttigieg, right after Biden lowered expectations for his own campaign. Rival Democrats are nearly as interested in cutting down Buttigieg as he is, and a discussion of Buttigieg's thin résumé might help several non-Biden candidates. But Biden also retooled his stump speech slightly Saturday, leaning further into the personal stories of tragedy that have made him stand out even as Democratic voters flirt with other candidates.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and lose my country, too, Biden said in Manchester.

Poll watch

New Hampshire primary (Marist, 709 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 25% ( 3) 
Pete Buttigieg: 21% ( 4) 
Elizabeth Warren: 14% ( 1) 
Joe Biden: 13% (-2) 
Amy Klobuchar: 8% (-2) 
Andrew Yang: 4%
Tom Steyer: 4%
Tulsi Gabbard: 3% 
Michael Bennet: 1%
Deval Patrick: 1% 

This pollster last checked in before the results in Iowa, finding not too much movement since; Buttigieg, remember, had been on the air in New Hampshire in case Iowa gave him a boost. If there's a surprise, it's that Klobuchar didn't benefit from increased chatter about her candidacy, but that could change once voters have processed the Friday night debate. The biggest movement below the radar has been growing enthusiasm for Buttigieg, with the number of voters who “strongly” support him jumping by 19 points. But while a supermajority of liberals are behind either Sanders or Warren, independents and moderates remain unsettled. Buttigieg has 30 percent of that vote, to 22 percent for Biden, and 15 percent for Klobuchar. Even a shift of 10 percent in that vote could push Klobuchar into the first tier, push Buttigieg decisively over Sanders, or push Biden into fifth place.

New Hampshire primary (Suffolk, 500 registered voters)

Pete Buttigieg: 25% ( 2) 
Bernie Sanders: 24% (-) 
Elizabeth Warren: 14% ( 1) 
Joe Biden: 11% (-2) 
Amy Klobuchar: 6% (-)
Andrew Yang: 3% (-) 
Tom Steyer: 2% (-1)  Tulsi Gabbard: 2% (-2) 
Michael Bennet: 1% (-) 

We all know that a 25-to-24 race is an effective tie; it would be overstating things to say that Buttigieg has pushed ahead of Sanders. But he has rocketed from the low teens to a competitive position, and if there is anything here to worry Sanders's supporters, it's that he continues to poll at less than half his 2016 support, with the chance of a moderate breakthrough stopped largely by the cluster of moderate candidates behind him.

New Hampshire primary (CNN/UNH, 365 registered voters)

Bernie Sanders: 28% ( 3) 
Pete Buttigieg: 21% ( 6) 
Joe Biden: 11% (-5) 
Elizabeth Warren: 9% (-3) 
Tulsi Gabbard: 6% ( 1) 
Amy Klobuchar: 5% (-1) 
Andrew Yang: 3% (-2) 
Tom Steyer: 3% ( 1) 

 
This has been one of Sanders's better polls in the state, finding him steady in New Hampshire even at low ebbs for his national campaign. But both he and Biden get an ominous result later in the questionnaire. For Sanders, it's a 45-point lead on who voters expect to win the primary, up from a 17-point lead in January. That's only bad for Sanders insofar as it risks some liberal voters deciding that he's got the election won already and casting protest votes for someone else. It's worse for Biden: Just 25 percent of Democrats now say he has the “best chance” of winning in November. That matches his lowest number in this poll, from before he entered the race, and it's a16-point drop since last month, a period in which Sanders and Buttigieg rose on the “electability” question by nine and six points. 

Candidate tracker

There are no more cattle calls or distractions for Democrats until the primary Tuesday, and every candidate who isn't worth at least $1 billion will be stumping across New Hampshire.

Bernie Sanders. He'll hold his final rallies in the Connecticut River Valley, the part of the state that's closest to New Hampshire and where he ran best in 2016: Hanover, Claremont, and Keene.

Pete Buttigieg. He'll hold rallies in Nashua and Dover.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll host events in Concord and Rochester.

Joe Biden. He'll hold events in Hampton and Hudson, taking him across New Hampshire's biggest population centers.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll hold rallies across the suburban counties, in Manchester, Nashua and Salem

Andrew Yang. He'll finish his town halls in the northern, more rural parts of the state: Hopkinton, Hanover, Littleton and Conway.

Michael F. Bennet. He'll campaign in the north country, with stops in Berlin, Dixville Notch, Littleton and Plymouth, places with fewer Democratic borders but a lot of local media interest.

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a town hall in Portsmouth.

Deval Patrick. He'll hold a medical roundtable in Concord, a canvass kickoff in Nashua and a town hall in Plymouth.

Tom Steyer. After the party dinner is over, he'll head to South Carolina, hosting a block party in Winnsboro.

What I’m watching

Bloomberg's endorsements. Four weeks ago, when Rep. Max Rose of New York backed the Bloomberg campaign, it looked like a curiosity: a swing-district Staten Island congressman evading all the Democrats' intraparty arguments. 

Eight more endorsements later, Bloomberg suddenly is in the first tier of candidates in terms of support from members of Congress. Joe Biden is backed by 40 Democratic House members; Elizabeth Warren has 12. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the 2016 primary, has just nine endorsements from members of the House, all of them from safely Democratic seats; Pete Buttigieg has seven, most of them from swing seats.

Bloomberg's endorsers come from swing seats, too, with a difference: Two of them benefited in 2018 from the immense spending of his super PAC. New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill and Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, two stars of the 2018 wave, got air cover from the mayor two years ago and endorsed him this week.

New Hampshire history

The 1972 Democratic primary had played out like the race of four years earlier: An insurgent, antiwar senator did the work and came close enough to push out the old front-runner. The 1976 primary was the first with no obvious favorite and no binary choice. 

Seventeen Democrats ran for the nomination that year, an unprecedented number of active candidates, all encouraged by the Watergate-driven implosion of the Republican Party. The party’s best-known candidates, Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy, did not jump in, though there was a draft effort for both. That led to a dogpile of respected but lesser-known members of Congress, with former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter running as the Washington outsider.

In Iowa, that led to a breakout for Carter, but New Hampshire was supposed to be different. And it was: More candidates actively organized around the state, with Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma and Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona joined by 1972 vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver. 

Carter was not initially seen as a threat. In a pre-primary poll, Udall and Bayh had the highest favorable ratings among likely voters, and local Democrats saw them running the strongest New Hampshire campaigns. “Mr. Udall has the most technically proficient organization,” wrote R.W. Apple Jr. in the New York Times. “Mr. Harris has the greatest intensity of commitment among his followers and Mr. Bayh has the broadest spectrum of middle-level political activists.”

The problem was that those three candidates carved up the liberal electorate, leaving the moderate lane wide open for Carter. On primary day, Carter triumphed with 28 percent of the vote, still the lowest victory total for any Democrat in a New Hampshire primary. The liberals got a combined 57 percent: 23 percent for Udall, 15 percent for Bayh, 11 percent for Harris, 8 percent for Shriver. They would stay divided for weeks, even after the warning New Hampshire had given their wing of the party. 

Countdown

... three days until the New Hampshire primary 
... 11 days until the ninth Democratic debate
... 14 days until the Nevada caucuses 
... 21 days until the South Carolina primary 
... 24 days until Super Tuesday