MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, fresh off claiming victory in the Iowa caucuses earlier this week, took fire from all fronts at Friday’s debate as his 2020 Democratic presidential rivals tried to knock down a new front-runner.
Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont painted Mr. Buttigieg as beholden to big-money interests, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the country didn’t necessarily need a “cool newcomer,” and billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer dismissed the former mayor’s experience.
“I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign,” Mr. Sanders told Mr. Buttigieg.
The two candidates ended up in a virtual tie for first place in Iowa and have been the two top-polling contenders in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
Mr. Buttigieg defended his prolific fundraisers, saying Democrats are going to need all the firepower they can get against the well-funded campaign of President Trump.
“As the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire, I know a thing or two about building a movement because the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not exactly an establishment fundraising powerhouse,” he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also took an unnamed shot at Mr. Buttigieg while accusing former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg of trying to buy his way to the nomination.
“I don’t think billionaires ought to be able to do it, and I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires ought to be able to do it,” Ms. Warren said.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg tangled at the last debate when she accused him of cozying up to corporate donors with big money fundraisers in a swanky “Wine Cave” in Napa Valley.
She also deemed insufficient an answer Mr. Buttigieg gave about marijuana-related arrests of people of color in South Bend.
“You have to own up to the facts,” she said.
Ms. Klobuchar, meanwhile, relished her tangles with the young former mayor
“I’m not a political newcomer with no record,” Ms. Klobuchar said toward the end of the debate.
In a previous debate, she had questioned whether a woman with a similarly thin resume as Mr. Buttigieg would be in the same position he’s in right now as a top presidential contender.
She dinged Mr. Buttigieg for styling himself to look like a “cool newcomer.”
Ms. Klobuchar chided Mr. Buttigieg for bemoaning the boring impeachment trial of Mr. Trump while she and other senators were doing the serious and difficult work in Washington.
“You said it was exhausting to watch, and you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” said Ms. Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is trailing badly in the race. “We have a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us.”
Even billionaire Tom Steyer, who barely registered in Iowa and is near the back of the pack in New Hampshire, got in on the act. He said a certain level of experience is necessary to take on Mr. Trump.
“That’s why I’m worried about Mayor Pete,” Mr. Steyer said. “You need to be able to go toe-to-toe with this guy and take him down on debate stage, or we’re going to lose.”
Mr. Buttigieg did his best to parry the attacks, saying that all the years of Washington experience on the stage isn’t for everyone.
“And as to experience, I just bring a different perspective,” he said. “Look, I freely admit that if you’re looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, you’ve got your candidate, and of course it’s not me.”
Mr. Buttigieg also vouched for Hunter Biden, the son of 2020 rival Joseph R. Biden, saying it’s “unbelievably dishonorable” to try to pit a father and son against each other for political purposes.
Mr. Buttigieg said it’s not a danger to nominate someone who’s still under the threat of investigation.
“No — and we are not going to let them change the subject,” he said. “This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or anybody — this is about an abuse of power by the president.”
“We’ve got to draw a line here, and to be the kind of president, to be the kind of human being who would seek to turn someone against his own son, who would seek to weaponize a son against his own father is an unbelievably dishonorable thing,” he said.
Mr. Biden thanked Mr. Buttigieg for his comments.
“It is a diversion,” the former vice president said.
Mr. Buttigieg was riding the momentum from narrowly edging out Mr. Sanders in the Iowa caucuses in “state delegate equivalents,” which are used to help determine the delegates sent to the Democratic National Convention in July.
Mr. Sanders also claimed victory in the “popular vote” in Iowa, amid a caucus process that was marred by significant delays in reporting of the results in a black eye for the party.
The Sanders campaign said the final tally from the Iowa Democratic Party confirms that he won, but that because of reporting discrepancies the true final count might never truly be known.
Mr. Sanders held a 4-point lead over Mr. Buttigieg, 25% to 21%, among likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released just hours before the start of the debate.
Ms. Warren, who finished third in Iowa, was next at 14%, followed by Mr. Biden at 13% and Ms. Klobuchar at 8%.
The poll was taken from Tuesday through Thursday and had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.7 points.
After the disappointing finishes in Iowa, Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden need strong performances to rebound in the Granite State.
The Massachusetts senator is battling it out with Mr. Sanders for support of the far-left of the Democratic Party.
And there are signs that Mr. Biden’s South Carolina “firewall” is shaky after a lackluster fourth-place finish in Iowa.
Candidates like Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Steyer, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang could be straining to keep their campaigns chugging forward without a better-than-expected finish Tuesday.
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