MANCHESTER, N.H. — The final week of campaigning in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary ended in much the way it began: with a food fight between the top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The uptick in attacks marked a nastier phase of the race and fed fears that the deep political divide that undercut Democrats’ ability to close ranks behind Hillary Clinton four years ago could again sink the party’s chances of defeating President Trump.
Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who won a landslide victory over Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, appeared poised for another victory Tuesday — setting off alarm bells among the establishment.
“There is reason for concern because there is a good chance that Democrats won’t know whom the alternative to Bernie Sanders is after tomorrow, and maybe they won’t know until after Nevada,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “So for all the party elites who don’t want Sanders, there has been significant concern at this point because for them, if it is not [former Vice President Joseph R.] Biden, then who?”
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has sought to claim that center-left mantle after pulling off a razor-thin victory over Mr. Sanders in the Iowa caucuses.
The Iowa results upped the ante in New Hampshire, in particular for the likes of Mr. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who have struggled to live up to their pre-campaign hype.
Indeed, a Sanders victory in New Hampshire would be a major blow to Ms. Warren and could cement his status as the top pick of far-left voters. A strong showing from Mr. Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar could add to the unease among Biden backers, whose candidate has hit the skids since Iowa.
The growing sense of urgency has been palpable on the campaign trail.
Mr. Sanders’ supporters, including “Bernie or bust” voters, targeted Mr. Buttigieg with their pent up anti-establishment zeal.
They chastised him for accepting checks from wealthy campaign donors and showered him with boos and chants of “Wall Street Pete” at a major party gathering.
Ryan Hirsch, a 35-year-old from Nashua who works in information technology, said he is resigned to a Trump reelection if Mr. Sanders isn’t the nominee.
“It’s Bernie or bust for me,” he said. “Honestly, if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, I’m just not going to vote. I can’t. I’m not excited for any of the other candidates. I just feel like it’s more of [the] status quo.
“We need an actual — not necessarily a violent revolution, but a revolution nonetheless in order to deal with the climate change crisis, in order to deal with economic inequality,” he said.
On Monday, Mr. Sanders campaigned with actress Cynthia Nixon and leaned into the Buttigieg critique.
“Unlike some of my opponents, I don’t have contributions from the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry, from Wall Street tycoons,” Mr. Sanders said. “We don’t want their money. We don’t need their money.”
Mr. Buttigieg also benefited from some star power, campaigning alongside actor Kevin Costner.
Speaking in Plymouth, he cautioned voters against “chasing after the extremes” and said Mr. Sanders has not been upfront about his “Medicare-for-All” vision.
“We cannot risk alienating voters at this critical moment, and that is where I part ways with my friend Sen. Sanders,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “This is a moment for bringing as many people as we can into the picture. But a picture where your only choice is between a revolution or the status quo is a picture where most of us don’t see ourselves.”
Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’ math on health care doesn’t add up.
“How are we going to pay for it?” he said. “Are we going to pay for it in the form of still further taxes, or are we going to pay for it in the form of broken promises?”
Ms. Klobuchar distanced herself from Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders and reminded voters that she stood alone on the most recent debate stage in voicing concerns about having a socialist leading the Democratic Party ticket.
“I don’t agree with everything people say on the debate stage,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “In fact, when we were asked at the last debate if we thought a socialist should lead the ticket, I was the only one that raised my hand and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’
“That doesn’t mean I’m not good friends with Bernie — I am. I just have a different philosophy than he does,” she said, referring to Mr. Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.”
History suggests time is running out for Ms. Klobuchar and others to make a move.
Over the past 50 years, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George McGovern in 1972 were the only Democratic presidential contenders who went on to clinch the party’s nomination after failing to win either Iowa or New Hampshire.
It helps explain why Mr. Biden this week belittled Mr. Buttigieg’s mayoral record and dismissed comparisons to Barack Obama.
“This guy’s not a Barack Obama,” Mr. Biden told reporters.
Mr. Buttigieg fired back on CNN.
“He’s right. I’m not. And neither is he. Neither is any of us running for president,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “This isn’t 2008; it’s 2020, and we are in a new moment calling for a different kind of leadership.”
The latest polls out of New Hampshire show Mr. Sanders holding a 28.7% to 21.3 % lead over Mr. Buttigieg, running second.
Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar are locked in a statistical tie for third place. Each of them garners roughly 11%.
A national Quinnipiac poll released Monday also showed Mr. Sanders seizing the lead from Mr. Biden for the first time this election cycle.
Mr. Biden’s numbers also slipped among black voters, who have been the bedrock supporters of his campaign.
Mike Zlotowicz, a 38-year-old boat captain from Manchester, predicted Mr. Sanders will reshape the Democratic Party much as Mr. Trump did with the Republican Party in 2016.
“A dark horse, non-party member won their base, won their nomination, and they fell in line and he changed the party,” Mr. Zlotowicz said.
“I think that Democrats will be in an identical situation in 2020 with a sane, noncriminal candidate but still someone who is not traditionally a member of their party, a fundraiser for their party, a contributor to their party that they really don’t want to win the nomination,” he said.
The primary contest in New Hampshire will bring more clarity to the race heading into the Nevada caucuses Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary Feb. 29. The two states have more ethnically diverse electorates than Iowa and New Hampshire, whose populations are overwhelmingly white.
The contest jumps into hyperdrive on March 3, when voters in 14 states head to the polls on Super Tuesday.
Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
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