MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) – Democrats scrambled to gain an edge with voters on Saturday on the last weekend before the party’s next presidential nominating contest in New Hampshire, where Pete Buttigieg began drawing fire as the candidate on the rise.
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ended up in a virtual tie with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in results that trickled in from Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Both men claimed victory, while U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren followed in third place and former Vice President Joe Biden trailed in fourth.
The problems that plagued the caucuses overshadowed any victory bump before New Hampshire’s contest on Tuesday and cast a pall as the Democratic Party began the process of picking a nominee to face Republican President Donald Trump in November.
Here is what is happening in New Hampshire on the campaign trail.
EMPHASIS ON THE MAYOR
After what has been a mostly affable Democratic campaign, Biden’s team pulled off the gloves and targeted the 38-year-old Buttigieg with a withering digital ad that pits Biden’s decades of experience in public life against that of the former mayor.
The ad makes liberal use of popular former President Barack Obama in a belittling rundown of the ex-mayor’s small-town issues and also takes a swipe at his troubled record with African Americans.
It shows Biden helping pass the Affordable Care Act while Buttigieg installed decorative lights under city bridges; Biden helping secure the Iran nuclear deal while Buttigieg negotiated lighter regulations for pet chip scanners; Biden helping save the U.S. auto industry while Buttigieg “revitalized the sidewalks of downtown South Bend” with decorative brick.
The ad, which will run on Facebook and YouTube in New Hampshire, extols Biden’s work on the assault weapons ban, while noting that Buttigieg forced out the city’s black police chief.
“We’re electing a president. What you’ve done matters,” the ad says in closing.
Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher derided the spot as Washington politics as usual that trivialized the concerns of ordinary communities. “The Vice President’s decision to run this ad speaks more to where he currently stands in this race than it does about Pete’s perspective as a mayor and veteran,” he said.
Biden, 77, finished a distant fourth in Iowa and all but conceded he would lose New Hampshire in the first moments of a Democratic debate on Friday night.
For months, people close to the Biden campaign had said going negative would be harmful to his political brand, which is built around empathy and optimism.
But his poor finish in Iowa seems to have altered that calculus. In New Hampshire, he has been much more critical of his rivals by name. The Buttigieg ad marks a significant escalation that likely carries some risk of blowback.
FRONT-RUNNER TO UNDERDOG?
At a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, Biden began to re-frame himself as an underdog.
“I’ve never paid attention to all this front-runner talk since I entered the race.” He listed various political and personal setbacks on his life. “I know nothing comes easy.”
He repeated his warning that nominating Buttigieg or Sanders would be an unacceptable risk for Democrats.
In line with the ad, he made light of Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor of South Bend, saying there was a difference between managing the budget of a small city and his own work marshaling the $900 billion Recovery Act economic stimulus package through Congress after the 2008-2009 recession.
Of Sanders, Biden said for all his time in Congress, Sanders had made no progress in getting his Medicare for All plan passed. “He hasn’t been able to move the ball a single inch.”
AN EDGE FOR BUTTIGIEG
The latest Suffolk University tracking poll of New Hampshire Democratic voters shows Buttigieg with 25% to Sanders’ 24%, within the 4.4 point margin of error and showing a clear split between the moderate from Indiana and the party’s progressive standard-bearer from neighboring Vermont.
In the two-day tracking poll of 500 likely Democratic primary voters, Buttigieg has risen 14 points since the first poll was published Feb. 3.
Warren, Sanders’ fellow liberal from next-door Massachusetts, was third with 14% and Biden finished fourth with 11%, the poll showed. The other candidates were in single digits with 7% of voters undecided.
A CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Sanders still holding a lead but with Buttigieg swiftly gaining on him.
Campaigning far from New Hampshire, in Oklahoma City, billionaire Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg racked up another endorsement on Saturday, this one from a Michigan Democrat elected in 2018 in a district that Trump carried two years earlier.
U.S. Representative Haley Stevens, one of 31 Democrats who represent congressional districts that Trump won in 2016. “Michigan needs an economic champion in the White House,” she declared in a statement.
Another of those Democrats, former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill, endorsed Bloomberg on Thursday, as did the former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who on Friday became the first high-level former Trump administration official to back a Democratic hopeful in the 2020 election.
Reporting by Joseph Ax and James Oliphant in Concord, N.H.; Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson in Los Angeles; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Chizu Nomiyama