GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — After a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa knocked him off his front-runner perch, former vice president Joe Biden came out swinging at the Democratic debate Friday night, landing some blows on his better-performing rivals Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg in a feistier than usual performance.
But even as Biden and other Democrats sharpened their attacks ahead of Tuesday’s crucial New Hampshire primary, questioning one another’s policies and ability to defeat President Trump, they also made a show of unity, doling out hugs and compliments and defending their rivals from his attacks. It’s a sign that the candidates may be afraid of going too negative in a moment when many Democratic voters say they want to focus on defeating Trump, not infighting.
“Everybody up here ... is united,” Sanders declared. “No matter who wins this damn thing, we’re all going to stand together to defeat him.”
The result was a debate that didn’t appear to shake up the status quo of the race, a contest that polls show is tightening between Sanders and Buttigieg in New Hampshire. Neither Senator Elizabeth Warren nor Biden had a breakout moment many strategists thought each needed to juice their standing ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
Biden acknowledged his campaign’s troubles at the outset.
“This is a long race. I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” he said, appearing to acknowledge his slide in the polls. (He was in fourth place in New Hampshire in the Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University poll released Friday night.) “But no matter what, I’m still in this for the same reason: We have to restore the soul of this country, bring back the middle class, and make sure we bring people together."
Biden sharply questioned Buttigieg’s experience as a mayor of a “small city” and inability so far to attract Black and Latino voters, as well as Sanders’ electability, record on guns, and costly Medicare for All plan. Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer also took aim at Buttigieg over his experience, with entrepreneur Andrew Yang telling Buttigieg he was blaming everything on Trump instead of thinking of solutions. In contrast, Warren, who finished third in Iowa, maintained a low profile, pushing her anticorruption message and only briefly criticizing Buttigieg when asked directly about his record on race by a moderator.
“The fact is we’re in New Hampshire, a very level-headed group of people,” Biden said while slamming Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. “How much is it going to cost? If you ask Bernie he says, ‘Go figure, I don’t know, we’ll find out.’”
Biden, who took two full days off the campaign trail to prepare for this debate, also argued Sanders being a self-described democratic socialist would drag down other Democrats running in November, a concern that only Klobuchar said she shared when the rest of the field was asked by the moderator to raise their hand if they agreed with Biden.
“Bernie’s labeled himself, not me, a democratic socialist,” Biden said. “I think that’s the label the president is gonna lay on anyone running with Bernie if he’s the nominee."
Sanders, 78, largely declined to go on the attack against Biden while defending his health care plan and dismissing concerns about his democratic socialism. Instead, Sanders called for unity. “No matter who wins this damn thing we’re all going to stand together to defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders said.
But it was Buttigieg, not Sanders, who appeared to draw the most annoyance from Biden — and the rest of the field. The young former mayor handily batted away complaints from the rest of the field about his inexperience, instead touting his outsider status as a positive. “I freely admit that if you’re looking for the person with the most years of Washington experience under your belt, you’ve got your candidate and of course it’s not me,” Buttigieg said as the 77-year-old former vice president laughed.
“The politics of the past I think were not all that bad,” Biden shot back, listing his legislative accomplishments including the Violence Against Women Act. “I don’t know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad.”
“We have to meet this moment and this moment is different,” Buttigieg insisted, as Biden crossed his arms in front of his chest and raised his eyebrows. “We cannot solve the problems before us by looking back.”
Warren appeared caught in the crossfire in her spot on the stage between the two men, disappearing for chunks of time on the TV split screen of Biden and Buttigieg as they tussled.
But later in the night, she brought the fight when discussing the influence of money in the election, turning a question about former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg into an opportunity to hit not only Bloomberg but pretty much everyone on the stage.
“I don’t think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into a nomination or to be president of the United States. I don’t think any billionaire ought to be able to do it, and I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns ought to do it,” Warren said.
She pointed out that she and Klobuchar were the only two on the stage who were neither billionaires or supported by “PACs that can do unlimited spending.” While she didn’t name him, Warren’s comment was a subtle reminder that Sanders has the support of several outside organizations, despite sharing her commitment to reject fancy fund-raisers.
“So if you really want to live where you say, then put your money where your mouth is and say no to the PACs,” she said.
On the electability debate, Buttigieg argued that neither Biden nor Sanders would be able to unify the party against Trump. Sanders is “dividing people with a politics that says if you don’t go all the way to the edge, it doesn’t count, and a politics that says it’s my way or the highway,” Buttigieg claimed.
“Needless to say, I’ve never said that, but let me tell you what I do say,” Sanders retorted. “The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country —not the billionaire class.”
Klobuchar, a moderate who over-performed her polling to finish fifth in Iowa, joined Biden in taking aim at Buttigieg, dismissing his frequent criticism of Washington experience as an easy schtick and saying he was trying to cast himself as a “cool newcomer.” “I don’t think that’s what people want right now,” she said. “We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us.”
Though Biden was often on the attack, he also took his share of incoming fire. He got defensive when billionaire Tom Steyer asked him to disavow comments made by South Carolina state Senator Dick Harpootlian, which a number of Black lawmakers in the state said were racist. Biden replied by boasting about the “support I have from the overwhelming number of the members of that Black Caucus” as well as more support from the Black community in South Carolina than any of his rivals.
But despite the back-and-forth, the rivals also went out of their way to display their unity against Trump. Biden grabbed Sanders in a sideways hug after the moderator read out Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that “no one likes” the senator.
“I like Bernie just fine,” Klobuchar added.
“Joe Biden is a friend of mine, and I’m not here to attack him,” Sanders said when asked about one of his prominent surrogates arguing Biden has pushed policy positions that “betrayed” Black voters.
And Buttigieg strongly batted away a question about Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who Republicans have alleged inappropriately benefited financially from his father’s position as vice president.
“We’re not going to let them change the subject,” Buttigieg said. “This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or any Biden, this is about an abuse of power by the president.”
Biden took that opportunity to urge the New Hampshire crowd to stand and applaud Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was ousted Friday by Trump after testifying in the House’s impeachment trial.
“He should be pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh,” Biden said, referencing the right-wing radio host who was awarded the Medal of Freedom earlier this week.