Pete Buttigieg has faced incoming fire from his fellow Democratic candidates before, but he’s never been at the center of attention the way he was Friday night in New Hampshire. Did any of his rivals’ attacks dent his co-front-runner status heading into New Hampshire? I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti, who offered his view from the debate venue at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Ben: In many of our post-debate chats over the last few months, I’ve asked a question to the effect of: Did Joe Biden’s poor performance hurt him? And the answer has usually been: Nah, nothing seems to move the guy’s numbers. But now that he has finished a fairly disastrous fourth place in Iowa, his performance takes on a different tenor. So the question this time is: did he do anything to arrest his slide that looks set to continue in New Hampshire — which he himself admitted right up top?
Gabriel: When I spoke to some of his advisers in the last two to three days, a bunch of them said they hoped he would directly attack Sanders and Buttigieg, like he’d been doing on the campaign trail in recent days. Their hope was that this would prove to voters he was still fighting here. He … did that, a bit! But he also started off the night by previewing that he would probably do poorly in New Hampshire. So sure, expectations successfully lowered, but I don’t recall any one moment that will obviously reorder things.
Ben: With Mayor Pete having “won” Iowa (depending on how you measure it), he had a target on his back in a way that he hasn’t really before, even during previous surges. Amy Klobuchar went after him repeatedly, especially for playing up the outsider credentials you’ve written about, and Bernie Sanders got a few blows in too. Did you think anyone knocked him down a peg in an actual lasting way?
Gabriel: I’ll be really interested to see if Klobuchar’s attacks — which mirror, or even exactly echo, some lines she’s had in recent days — break through. She’s been claiming momentum, and it did feel like her attacks on Buttigieg were clearer and sharper than ever. However, a big question I have about that: Will that bring his numbers down? Or will Biden voters skeptical of Buttigieg skip over to Klobuchar’s camp? We, presumably, will see.
Ben: Yeah, and I just saw someone tweet: “Six months of hearing pundits praising a breakthrough debate night for Amy Kloubachar without Amy Kloubachar, you know, breaking through.” Is it too late for a huge leap given that the primary is only four days away now? Could she peel a lot of votes from Biden if he well and truly collapses?
Gabriel: Well I doubt she’s going to win New Hampshire! But it wouldn’t be all that huge a leap to think she could again compete with Biden for fourth, like she did in Iowa.
But, of course, if Biden is really collapsing, it’s not like he’d have all that much support to peel away, in the first place. And the places he does have a lot of support are places where she’s shown no signs of growth at all, especially among nonwhite voters.
Ben: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as ever, seemed to mostly stick to their usual debate messaging, focusing laser-like on economic and racial injustice. Bernie is in the lead in New Hampshire, but Warren finished a disappointing third in Iowa and is on track to do similarly in the Granite State. What did you think of her performance?
Gabriel: She definitely provided more contrasts with rivals — including Sanders! — than she has before. Did she have any obvious breakout moment? No, clearly not, but she stuck with what’s worked for her in the past, and pretty strikingly tried distinguishing herself from the rest on campaign-finance terms.
Ben: Anything else leap out to you about the evening?
Gabriel: I think some folks here in the filing center were surprised not to see more Pete v. Bernie fireworks. But the ones that we did see suggest to me that the next few days may be pretty spicy.
Ben: What do you think the central lines of attack will be? Bernie was certainly hitting the “Pete loves billionaires thing” hard today, not just at the debate.
Gabriel: Right, and he did say it briefly at the debate. Pete, meanwhile, just doesn’t like Sanders’ entire theory of change, and he’s been amping up his problems with it since the final week of Iowa. Clearly he thinks it’s working.