Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg dominated the final Democratic debate before the New Hampshire presidential primary, laying out two sharply contrasting plans for defeating U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Vermont Senator and the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who fought to a virtual draw in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, also took most of the fire from their rivals on the stage.
Mr. Sanders told the crowd of 1,400 at Saint Anselm College Friday that only hefty, unapologetically leftwing policies would motivate enough disengaged voters to recapture the White House.
“The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class,” said the self-described democratic socialist, who is promising to replace private health insurance with a single government-run system and make university tuition free.
Mr. Buttigieg attacked Mr. Sanders as a radical ideologue who would alienate moderate voters, accusing him of “dividing people with a politics that says ‘if you don’t vote all the way to the edge, it doesn’t count,’” and of having a “my way or the highway” attitude.
“New Hampshire, a state that thinks for itself … is going to respond to those who are reaching out in a politics of addition and inclusion and belonging. Not one that beats people over the head and says they shouldn’t even be on our side if we don’t agree 100 percent of the time,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
After Iowa’s inconclusive results, which were also subject to lengthy delays and a possible recalculation of the numbers, the party will be looking to New Hampshire’s vote Tuesday to break the deadlocked race for the nomination.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, who led polls for months but finished in fourth place in Iowa, conceded at the start of the debate that he was likely to lose in New Hampshire. “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” he said.
He also tore into Mr. Sanders’s healthcare plan as too expensive. “He says he wrote the damn thing, but can’t say what the damn thing is going to cost,” Mr. Biden said.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leftist who finished third in Iowa, mostly stayed above the fray.
She did, however, draw a sharp distinction with Mr. Sanders over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Mr. Sanders voted against the deal because it does not contain any provisions fighting climate change and did not go far enough for his liking on labour rights. But Ms. Warren, who voted in favour, pointed out that the deal’s labour provisions are still stronger than those in the current NAFTA, which would remain in place if USMCA had not been ratified. USMCA also offers American farmers more access to Canada’s protected dairy market.
“This makes things somewhat better for workers and for farmers,” Ms. Warren says. “I’ll sign up for that.”
Mr. Sanders, for his part, took aim at Mr. Buttigieg for accepting large contributions from wealthy donors.
“Unlike some of the campaigns up here, Pete, I don’t have 40 billionaires funding my campaign, coming from the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street and all the big money interests,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg contended that without funds from rich people the Democrats would be outspent by the Republicans. “We need to go into that fight with everything that we’ve got,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg also took a hit from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who went after him for joking he would rather “watch cartoons” than Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
“It is easy to go after Washington, because that's a popular thing to do,” she said. “It is much harder to lead.”
Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has never held elected office, said Mr. Buttigieg was too inexperienced to “go toe-to-toe” with Mr. Trump. And entrepreneur Andrew Yang accused Mr. Buttigieg of a too-simplistic understanding of policy: “Pete, Pete…Trump is not the cause of all of our problems.”
And moderator Linsey Davis grilled Mr. Buttigieg on a rise in arrests of Black people for marijuana possession during his time as mayor. Mr. Buttigieg suggested that such arrests were meant to disrupt gang activity.
Still, there were moments of unity. When Mr. Sanders was asked to respond to Hillary Clinton, who defeated him for the 2016 nomination, saying that “nobody likes him,” Mr. Biden threw his arm around Mr. Sanders in a show of friendship.
And Mr. Biden exhorted the hall to give a standing ovation for Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman, the national security council official escorted out of the White House Friday after he testified against Mr. Trump during impeachment proceedings. “Stand up and clap for Vindman!” Mr. Biden shouted.
Ms. Klobuchar, meanwhile, offered some praise in a different direction: While explaining her support for the USMCA, she lauded Canada and Mexico – at least to a point.
“They may not be perfect,” she said. “But they are our friends.”