The Democratic presidential primary entered a new phase Friday night, with the Iowa results finally all in and the candidates debating in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
Below, some winners and losers.
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— Bernie Sanders: Sanders weathered early attacks on his electability — partially because the other candidates didn’t completely commit to the attack — and proceeded to have a mostly easy debate. He’s a candidate who is often criticized for saying the same things over and over again, but he brought something new Friday night and gave some passionate responses that may resonate.
An answer in which he bore down on President Donald Trump seemed to play particularly well. He said Trump had set a precedent in which “you’re going to have presidents who say, ‘Hey, governor, you want highway money, you better support me. Well, you’re not going to get it because I am the president. I can do anything I want. Hey, Congress, you want to investigate me? Don’t be ridiculous. Who cares about the Congress? Who cares about the separation of powers? Who cares about the constitution? … The president of the United States? I have all of the power and I’m able to intimidate members of my own party.’ ” Sanders added of Senate Republicans: “They knew that Donald Trump is a cheat, but they didn’t have the guts …”
Mostly, though, the night lacked sustained or powerful line of attack on Sanders who, after all, is leading most of the polls in New Hampshire. Pete Buttigieg took plenty more incoming on Friday.
— Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator has been solid at debates, and Friday was one of her best — mostly because she landed some punches on her top opponent, Buttigieg. She began by noting that he unequivocally supported Medicare-for-all in a 2018 tweet even though he doesn’t anymore (Buttigieg responded that he had been “consistent” on the issue but unfortunately wasn’t pressed to explain). And then she had one of the strongest moments of the night. She gave plaudits to Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for casting tough votes to remove President Donald Trump and was the first to praise Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump removed from the White House on Friday over his impeachment testimony.
Klobuchar then pivoted to another potent attack on Buttigieg for his statement that the impeachment trial exhausted him. “It is much harder to lead and much harder to take those difficult positions,” she said, “because I think this going after every single thing that people do, because it’s popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer — I just I don’t think that’s what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House. And look where it got us.” Yikes. Klobuchar has had good debates before, though, and she still finished fifth in Iowa. She needs to do quite a bit better in New Hampshire. She clearly thinks her path goes through Buttigieg. We’ll see.
— Tom Steyer’s warning: Steyer is easy to caricature as a candidate, and he often seems too eager to get into the mix. But early in Friday’s debate, he made arguments the Democrats would do well to heed: That they need to prosecute the economic case against Trump. “If you look at what Mr. Trump is saying, he’s saying those words: ‘It’s the economy, stupid,'” Steyer said. “I trust every one of these people a million times more (than Trump). But we’re going to have to take Mr. Trump down on the economy, because if you listen to him, he’s crowing about it every single day. And he’s going to beat us unless we can take down on the economy, stupid.” Trump’s numbers are indeed on the rise. Democrats, though, haven’t figured out what their economic rebuttal to him is — including Friday night.
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— Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg got a treatment Friday night that he simply hasn’t gotten before. The ever-prepared candidate may not have had any disastrous moments. But the Klobuchar attack wasn’t the only one that might give some voters pause. He noted that drug arrests in South Bend were below the national average, but then the moderator noted that they actually went up on his watch. Buttigieg responded by talking about systemic racism. Elizabeth Warren was asked whether his response was sufficient and said bluntly, “No.” Tom Steyer said he was “worried about Mayor Pete” as the nominee. Plenty of candidates pointed in the same direction: That Buttigieg just isn’t ready and is too big a risk. The drug arrests question also recalled Buttigieg’s main liability as a candidate: His lack of support from African-Americans.
One strong moment for Buttigieg, though, came when he was asked whether there was a danger in nominating Joe Biden given Republicans are investigating his son, Hunter Biden. “No, we’re not going to let them change the subject,” Buttigieg said. “This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or anybody. This is about an abuse of power by the president.” Nothing that happened Friday was perhaps crippling for Buttigieg, but his performance wasn’t as confidence-inspiring as past ones, and it reinforced some of his liabilities.
— Joe Biden: Rarely do you see a candidate begin a debate by waving the white flag, but that’s kind of what Biden did on Friday. At the start of the debate, Biden acknowledged he took “a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here. Traditionally, Bernie won by 20 points last time.” OK, maybe that’s some expectation-setting, but usually you see that on the trail rather than in a high-profile debate in front of a bunch of would-be voters.
As the debate wore on, Biden didn’t really do much to suggest his prediction was wrong. He rebutted an answer about the politics of the past by saying, “The politics of the past, I think, are not all that bad.” He proceeded to try to rescue the point by noting significant legislation he had participated in. Then Buttigieg shot back just as quickly, “Those achievements were phenomenally important because they met the moment, but now we have to meet this moment and this moment is different.” At another particularly puzzling moment, Biden predicted Congress would codify Roe v. Wade if the Supreme Court overturned it, which … seems pretty optimistic given the politics of abortion.
Biden tries really hard to emphasize that his past shows what can be done in the future, but you just wonder how many people are buying it. Mostly, though, there was nothing Friday night to suggest Biden would arrest his backward momentum — in New Hampshire or anywhere else.
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In the middle
— Elizabeth Warren: She was mostly a spectator early on — which isn’t ideal if you are the third-place candidate in Iowa. But she had some moments as the debate wore on. Particularly strong were her comments on race, in which she implored her party to focus on black voters more frequently — even when they weren’t seeking their votes.
“Year after year after year, election after election after election, Democrats go to people in the black community and say, ‘Boy, we really care about these issues. Racism is terrible. We all want to do something,’ ” she said. “And then somehow the problem just seems to keep getting worse. Well, I think it’s time we have real concrete plans that are going to make a difference in people’s lives.” She used the moment to argue that her wealth tax would help black people close the economic gap.