MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — The Democrats’ top presidential contenders clashed over health care, experience and electability in the early moments of a fiery debate Friday night as the 2020 primary season roared into a critical new phase.
Former Vice President Joe Biden predicted he could “take a hit” in New Hampshire’s next-up primary election after a weak showing in Iowa. But he also raised questions about leading rival Bernie Sanders’ status as a democratic socialist and warned Democratic voters that President Donald Trump and his allies would use the socialism label against Sanders and the party in congressional elections as well as the presidential voting.
“Bernie’s labeled himself, not me, a democratic socialist,” Biden said before acknowledging his own political challenges. “I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here.”
Sanders brushed off concerns about Trump’s attacks: “Donald Trump lies all the time,” he said.
Friday marked the eighth and perhaps most consequential debate in the Democratic Party’s yearlong quest for a presidential nominee. The prime-time affair came just four days after Iowa’s chaotic caucuses — and four days before New Hampshire’s primary — with several candidates suddenly facing pointed questions about their political survival.
The debate tested the strength of the Democrats’ new front-runners, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who emerged from Iowa on top but walked into New Hampshire with liabilities that their Democratic rivals fought to exploit. With the stakes rising by the day and money rapidly drying up, Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were also fighting to prove to voters and donors alike that a legitimate path to the presidency remained.
Klobuchar was among the underdog candidates who took aim at Buttigieg, lashing out at the millennial mayor for saying in his stump speech that the impeachment proceedings were “exhausting” and that he’d rather watch cartoons.
“It is easy to go after Washington. It is much harder to lead and much harder to take those difficult positions,” she said.
She also accused Buttigieg of attacking Washington “because it’s popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer.”
If elected, Buttigieg would be the youngest president ever elected and he has never served in elected office beyond the mayor’s office in South Bend, Indiana. But he used experience as a weapon against Biden, a two-term vice president who has spent most of his adult life in Washington.
“I’m interested in the style of the politics we need to put forward to actually finally turn the page,” Buttigieg said.
“Turn the page.”
Biden was then on the defensive: “The politics of the past I think were not all that bad,” he said. “I don’t’know what about the past about Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad.”
Sanders and Buttigieg entered the night as the top targets, having emerged from Iowa essentially tied for the lead. Those trailing after the first contest — including Biden, Warren and Klobuchar — had an urgent need to demonstrate strength.
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer and New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang, meanwhile, were fighting to prove they belong in the conversation.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg remains a major unknown in the primary math, skipping debates and the first four states’ elections while flooding the airwaves with hundreds of millions of dollars in ads and picking up significant endorsements. He’s focusing on the big basket of Super Tuesday primaries.
The rapidly changing dynamic meant that the candidates had great incentive to mix it up in the debate hosted by ABC. With the next debate nearly two weeks away, they might not get another chance.
Traditionally, the knives come out during this phase in the presidential primary process.
It was the pre-New Hampshire debate four years ago on the Republican side when then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie devastated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions with a well-timed take-down. Rubio never recovered, making it easier for Donald Trump to emerge as his party’s presidential nominee.
The stakes were particularly high for Biden, who has played front-runner in virtually every one of the previous seven debates but left Iowa in a distant fourth place. While reporting problems have blunted the impact of the Iowa contest, Biden’s weakness rattled supporters who encouraged him to take an aggressive tack Friday night.
The seven-person field also highlighted the evolution of the Democrats’ 2020 nomination fight, which began with more than two dozen candidates and has been effectively whittled down to a handful of top-tier contenders.
There are clear dividing lines based on ideology, age and gender. But just one of the candidates on stage, Yang, was an ethnic minority.
Beyond Biden’s struggles, there were several subplots to watch.
The debate was the first since a progressives feud erupted on national television between Sanders and Warren. The Massachusetts senator refused to shake her New England neighbor’s hand and accused him of calling her a liar moments after the Jan. 14 meeting in Iowa. The pointed exchange threatened to cause a permanent fissure in the Democratic Party’s far-left flank.
Warren also has embraced her gender as a political strength in the weeks since, highlighting the successes of female candidates in the Trump era and her own record of defeating a male Republican to earn a seat in the Senate.
That said, she stressed unity at campaign stops in recent days: “We’ve got to pull together as a party. We cannot repeat 2016,” she said this week in New Hampshire.
Yet Warren has been willing to attack before. Aside from the post-debate skirmish with Sanders, she seized on Buttigieg’s fundraising practices in past meetings.
While Warren and Sanders as presidential candidates have sworn off wealthy donors, Buttigieg and the rest of the field have continued to hold private finance events with big donors, some with connections to Wall Street. In fact, Buttigieg took the unusual step of leaving New Hampshire this week to hold three fundraisers with wealthy donors in the New York area.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Ronayne and Will Weissert in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.