Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at “Our Rights, Our Courts” forum at New Hampshire Technical Institute’s Concord Community College, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In New Hampshire, rising tensions divide 2020 Democrats

HUDSON, N.H. – The Democratic White House hopefuls have spent most of the past year leveling criticism at President Donald Trump. On the final frigid weekend before the New Hampshire primary, they sharply escalated their attacks on one of their own: Pete Buttigieg.

Former Vice President Joe Biden criticized the Indiana mayor’s scope of experience, casting him as unprepared to take the reins of the federal government. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders mocked his band of wealthy donors that includes some pharmaceutical executives and corporate powers.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the Politics & Eggs at Saint Anselm College New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

“We’re not here to denigrate Pete. He’s running a good campaign. But our views are different,” Sanders told supporters in Plymouth, drawing a rueful laugh from the crowd when he referred to his rival as “my friend.”

Another contender in the muddled race, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, tried to leverage a strong debate performance and a string of influential endorsements. She, too, has been critical of Buttigieg’s experience, drawing a line between the mayor and another one-time political novice.

Why the AJC sends reporters to other presidential primary states

Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein is in New Hampshire covering the lead-up to Tuesday's Democratic primary, as well as the results of the election.

Why would a Georgia paper send a reporter out of state when there is abundant political news at home? New Hampshire and Georgia are two very different states, but voters in both share many of the same concerns and the same national picture.

Early voting for Georgia’s March 24 presidential primary begins March 2, less than a month after the primary. That means the story coming out of New Hampshire will influence what happens here.

Bluestein will also follow a number of Georgians from both parties who are spending time in early primary states to support their candidates. Their stories are part of the larger tale of Georgia’s role in the presidential contest.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pauses while speaking at "Our Rights, Our Courts" forum New Hampshire Technical Institute's Concord Community College, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

“We have a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us,” she said at Friday’s debate in New Hampshire. “I think having some experience is a good thing.”

Just as notable was one candidate who took a softer approach: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has long been critical of Buttigieg’s closed-door fundraisers, told reporters she’s more focused on party unity.

“And the way we do this is not by launching a bunch of attacks on each other and trying to tear each other down,” she said.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at "Our Rights, Our Courts" forum New Hampshire Technical Institute's Concord Community College, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

As for Buttigieg, he tried to sidestep the stemwinders with a focus on Trump. Asked about that line of attack at a Sunday event, Buttigieg jokingly asked if there were any billionaires in his audience.

“The average donation to our campaign is under $40. Now, out of the hundreds of thousands (of donors), some have a lot of money,” Buttigieg said. “Just like I’m expecting them to pay more in taxes, I invite them to share as much as they can if they share our vision of defeating Donald Trump.”

‘Will not happen’

The icy approach in freezing New Hampshire reflected a new dynamic in the race after Iowa’s disastrous caucuses failed to yield conclusive results. No clear front-runner has emerged in the wild Democratic contest, injecting a sharper sense of urgency to Tuesday’s vote in New Hampshire.

The candidates who blanketed the state over the weekend insisted to anxious voters they were the party’s best chance to defeat Trump, who planned to hold a massive rally in Manchester on Monday.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Photo: Elise Amendola/AP

For Biden, it was a particularly perilous moment as he faced pressure to steady his campaign after a fourth-place “gut punch” of a finish in Iowa, which he followed up with a warning that he could face another disappointing finish in New Hampshire.

Recent polling suggests as much. Sanders, who decisively won New Hampshire’s primary in 2016, is widely expected to win Tuesday’s vote. But Buttigieg has emerged as the favorite of moderates and older voters in polls, while Biden has slipped into a tie with Warren for third place.

With his campaign on the line, Biden grew emotional during a town hall Sunday before a crowd of about 400 voters who poured into a local high school. He choked up as he spoke about his son’s battle with brain cancer, emphasizing his support for the Affordable Care Act.

“I just want to make it clear that one of the reasons I feel so, so, so strongly about protecting and expanding Obamacare is because I’ve watched my own family, how it works,” he said, hands shooting up as he asked how many in the audience have lost a loved one to terminal cancer.

His voice rising, he said his candidacy was a stand for America’s character.

“I’ve lost a lot in my life. I’ve lost a wife and child. I lost my son. But I’ll be damned if I lose my country,” his voice booming through speakers atop the gym’s stage, beside a scoreboard that read “2020.”

Though he didn’t mention Buttigieg during his town hall in Hudson, his campaign’s focus was otherwise clear.

Over the weekend, his campaign launched a digital ad that contrasts Biden’s record with Buttigieg’s as mayor, as a narrator intones: “What you’ve done matters.” And at an earlier stop, he warned that Democrats could be a “party at risk” if they nominate the mayor.

‘Who’s excited?’

Each also kept one eye on former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who looms large in March contests in vote-rich states like Georgia, Texas and California.

Though he hasn’t stepped foot in New Hampshire recently, Bloomberg is a fixture in the contest – particularly in the mind of Sanders. The Vermont senator warned that Bloomberg, who has already spent nearly $200 million for his campaign, “is spending millions to buy the election.”

He’s bypassed the early-voting states and is instead blitzing the airwaves with TV spots to make a stand in the states that vote in the Super Tuesday contest on March 3 and Georgia, where he has hired 50 staffers and opened a half-dozen offices ahead of the March 24 primary.

His bet on a muddled field also played into concerns about an issue many Democrats once saw as an afterthought: voter enthusiasm. Though candidates drew large crowds at several of the stops over the weekend, the problem-plagued Iowa caucus was a specter throughout the weekend.

The presidential campaigns expected a record voter participation in Iowa last week, but instead only experienced a slight turnout bump from the 2016 vote – and concerns that the excitement that helped Democrats capture the U.S. House two years ago had dampened.

At the Hudson event on Sunday, a Biden organizer repeatedly urged the crowd to play for the rolling TV cameras, bellowing: “Who’s excited to see Joe Biden?”

But many in the audience were undecided, including one woman who asked Biden if he could form a “dream team” with other candidates to defeat Trump since she and so many other New Hampshire residents were on the fence.

After a long windup, Biden offered a simple promise to the voters surrounding him.

“If I’m your nominee,” he vowed, “I will beat him.”

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