HOOKSETT, N.H. - Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, clashed throughout the day Sunday in a combative display of their determination to treat the upcoming New Hampshire primary as a two-person race, with former Vice President Joe Biden continuing to struggle.
After a year when Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren dominated the campaign at different stages, Sanders and Buttigieg have arrived in New Hampshire with the greatest momentum, according to public polling and a consensus of Democratic strategists in the state. A one-two finish for Sanders and Buttigieg here, after their near-tie in Iowa, could reorder the race and hasten a reckoning among Democratic leaders about which man would be the stronger nominee against President Donald Trump.
For all its divisions, the Democratic presidential field has been united for a year around the goal of defeating Trump, and even as attacks flew Sunday the candidates continued to pledge that they would lock arms and work together in the general election. But the weekend melee - complete with dark allusions to billionaire donors, allegations of intellectual dishonesty and sarcastic references to political inexperience - showed how difficult that task could be if the primary becomes a prolonged and acrimonious affair.
One way to avoid a long primary would be for Sanders or Buttigieg fully unite either liberals or moderates behind their campaigns. Such unity seems unlikely: Sanders must contend with Warren on the left, while Buttigieg is a long way from clearing the race of moderates like Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has drawn fresh interest from many voters since a strong debate performance Friday night.
But if they could not eliminate their other competitors, Buttigieg and Sanders managed at least to overshadow them Sunday by escalating the rivalry that has emerged between them. In Plymouth, Sanders denounced Buttigieg for relying on campaign contributions from the extremely wealthy, slamming his 38-year-old rival by name.
"Our views are different: Pete has raised campaign contributions from over 40 billionaires," Sanders said. Telling the crowd that television interviewers had questioned whether fundraising was an important campaign issue, Sanders thundered, "Of course it matters!"
In Dover, Buttigieg offered his own broadside, alleging that Sanders had not leveled with voters about the cost of his policy ambitions, especially single-payer health care. Rebuking Sanders again for what he has called an uncompromising view of leadership, Buttigieg suggested that voters "deserve somebody who can actually deliver math that adds up."
"What we could do without is a plan so expensive that Sen. Sanders himself freely admits he has no idea how it's supposed to be paid for," Buttigieg said.
The rivalry played out on television as well, with Sanders chiding Buttigieg on CNN for having raised money from "the CEOs of some of the largest drug companies in America." Buttigieg retorted, in perhaps the most personal barb of the day, "Well, Bernie's pretty rich, and I'd happily accept a contribution from him."
Neither argument was likely to win converts from the opposing candidate's camp: It would be difficult to imagine Sanders supporters suddenly recoiling from the price tag for "Medicare for All," or for Buttigieg's backers to abandon him over his fundraising practices.
The point of the exercise, however, was not to trigger mass defections between the left and the center, but to consolidate support on one side of the party or the other. Sanders has been focused on driving up turnout among progressives and trying to wrest away liberal support from Warren, the third-place finisher in Iowa, while Buttigieg has been appealing both to moderate Democrats and to independents and Republican voters who can cast ballots in New Hampshire's open Democratic primary.
Buttigieg's TV advertisements have focused on his outreach beyond the Democratic Party, and on Sunday he underscored the point when he asked voters - as he often does - to imagine the first day when Trump is no longer president. "I don't even think that's a partisan statement anymore, to look forward to that," he added.
At a campaign stop in Hanover, Sanders' supporters cheered his criticism of Buttigieg, sometimes in terms that captured the stark nature of the choice the two candidates have framed for voters. Alison Campion, 26, a researcher at Dartmouth, said she faulted Buttigieg for failing to "lead by example" in getting money out of politics; Campion said she thought Buttigieg's financial entanglements were more politically problematic than the label for which Sanders is most often criticized.
"In my world, there's more support for the word 'socialist' than 'billionaire,' " Campion said.
The possibility that moderate voters could rally behind Buttigieg has seemed to pose a dire threat to Biden, whose weak finish in Iowa sent at least some of his New Hampshire supporters fleeing to Buttigieg and Klobuchar.
Kevin Donohue, a retired federal employee who attended a rally for Klobuchar at Southern New Hampshire University, said he had not made up his mind but was leaning strongly toward supporting her. Donohue, 63, said he was also tempted to vote for Buttigieg but had ruled out Biden after watching him in a televised town hall event last week.
"Joe Biden just seems too old and out of touch," said Donohue, who said he admired Klobuchar's experience in government and praised Buttigieg as "something different."
Faced with the former vice president's imperiled status, his campaign charted a zigzagging course through the weekend, sometimes striking hard at Buttigieg and at other points taking a restrained and even gentle approach to a trying moment.
On Saturday, Biden's campaign released a cutting video that ridiculed Buttigieg's limited record in government, lining up Biden's formidable experience with matters of state against Buttigieg's municipal résumé. In a TV interview, Biden questioned whether Buttigieg could win support from African American voters and dismissed him again to reporters.
But Sunday, Biden declined to keep up the offensive against Buttigieg, limiting his criticism on the stump to veiled allusions to Buttigieg's failure to win over people of color and speaking broadly about the importance of experience.
He was more pointed in taking on Sanders over a familiar subject: Medicare for All. He suggested that the senator was not being straightforward about what the far-reaching proposal would cost.
Biden also noted that he was "far ahead of everybody" among black voters, but sounded at times more inclined to make his stand in the diverse primary states that vote later this month - Nevada and South Carolina - than to wage an all-out battle against Buttigieg here.
"Guess what, it's the base of the Democratic Party," Biden said, referring to African American voters.
Biden was not the only candidate seeming to move past New Hampshire. Warren, too, indicated in Concord on Sunday that she was looking to states further down the primary calendar and perhaps anticipating a very long primary campaign.
"There are 55 more states and territories after this," Warren told reporters. "I've got plenty of energy left."
Among moderates, the risk to Biden does not come solely from Buttigieg: Klobuchar, too, has shown signs of gaining ground since Iowa, and her campaign said she drew her largest crowd yet Sunday in Manchester.
Klobuchar continued on Sunday to make a strenuous case to moderate voters that she was the best choice for those "tired of the extremes in our politics," and several times mentioned that she hoped to win support from independent and Republican voters.
Even amid signs of a shift toward Buttigieg and Klobuchar, voters were still expressing anxiety about their final decision. At Klobuchar's stop in Hooksett, Janet White, 70, said she had settled on Klobuchar through a "process of elimination," excluding several candidates who were "too much to the left" and ultimately rejecting Biden as well.
"I like him as a person. I just think we need somebody younger," White said. "We need somebody younger, and that's what I like about Amy: She's not too young, she's not too old."
Of Buttigieg, she said, "He's another one I like, but I'm not sure it's his time."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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