Democrats vie for votes in New Hampshire debate

Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg entered debate leading in the polls and came out largely unscathed.

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    White House hopefuls Sanders and Buttigieg stood neck-and-neck in polls ahead of the next Democratic primary contest [Brian Snyder/Reuters]
    White House hopefuls Sanders and Buttigieg stood neck-and-neck in polls ahead of the next Democratic primary contest [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

    Seven candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination took the stage Friday night, hoping to win over New Hampshire voters ahead of the February 11 primary.

    It was a standout night for three candidates, in particular, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, in no particular order.

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    While the debate saw some candidates choose unity when given the chance to slam their opponents, there were still plenty of attacks. Candidates were also asked about foreign policy, including whether they would have ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

    After a serious reporting delay at the Iowa caucuses this week and no clear frontrunner, the stakes could not be higher.

    "New Hampshire typically finishes the job that Iowa starts in terms of rendering a verdict of who's viable and who's not," explained Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

    A Monmouth University Poll released Friday found that half of those polled - 49 percent - were firmly decided on their candidate of choice, leaving lots of room for candidates to win over undecided voters.

    Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Centre, explained that the high turnout in New Hampshire primaries means it is regular voters, not activists, who determine the vote in New Hampshire.

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    People tend to make up their minds a few days before the vote, or on election day, Smith told Al Jazeera.

    "You really can't think there are these blocks of voters who are locked down for any candidate."

    Scala said New Hampshire voters are looking for a combination of electability and likability. For the average voter, the policy distinctions among the candidates are quite subtle, he said.

    "They're not sitting at home with a big spreadsheet in front of them that shows policy positions step by step; they're going more on feel."

    Sanders versus Buttigieg

    Going into the debate, Sanders and Buttigieg were both leading the polls.

    The Monmouth poll showed that, among New Hampshire Democrats and unaffiliated voters who are likely to participate in the primary who were asked who they would vote for if the primary election was held today, Sanders was in the lead with 24 percent, followed by Buttigieg at 20 percent.

    "Bernie Sanders is competing to regain a primary he won four years ago, which puts a lot of expectations on him," Scala explained.

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    But for Buttigieg, who is surging in the polls, Scala said: "There's pressure on him to convert that into a victory next Tuesday, which would be a big upset and would really thrust him forward in the nomination process".

    It was no surprise, then, to see the two candidates using every tool at their disposal. During the debate, Sanders hyped his average donation of $18.50, contrasting himself against Buttigieg's "big money" funders.

    "In terms of money in politics, our campaign, and I am enormously proud of this, our campaign unlike some of the folks up here, I don't have four billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign, coming from the pharmaceutical industry, coming from Wall Street, and all the big money interests," Sanders said.

    "We're going into the fight of our lives," Buttigieg responded.

    "Donald Trump, according to news reports, and his allies raised $25 million today. We need to go into that fight with everything that we've got. I've been very clear on both my record, where I have sued pharmaceutical companies, and what I'm campaigning for, which includes raising wages and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy."

    Buttigieg differentiated himself from the other candidates by emphasising that he is younger than the rest, and an outsider.

    "If you're looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, then you've got your candidate, and of course it's not me."

    Sanders's strong showing in Iowa indicates he could perform well next week, too, Smith said. "Bernie is a force to be reckoned with and, jumping to the conclusion, he's likely to win New Hampshire."

    Who needed a win?

    Scala said several candidates needed strong performances during the debate after weak finishes in Iowa - Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

    Klobuchar rose to the occasion, connecting with the crowd. At one point, she drew applause when she said Trump "always sides with tyrants over innocents, dictators over allies but I think you've got to have some friends".

    "We have a president that literally blames everyone in the world and we have not talked about this enough," she continued.

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    "He blames Barack Obama for everything that goes wrong. He blames his federal reserve chair that he appointed himself. He blames the king of Denmark - who does that?" she asked, prompting laughter.

    Warren hit all her usual points - she is running a grassroots campaign, focusing on taking power from billionaires and emphasising that she is a woman who could be president.

    She received cheers when she said her two-cent wealth tax would help close the wealth gap between black and white people who have student loans.

    But there were no huge standout moments for Warren that would have helped differentiate her from the other progressive in the race, Sanders.

    Joe Biden, meanwhile, was stuck in a noticeable slump he did not seem able to break through Friday night. "He's a front runner who is all of a sudden trying to regain his balance after a very difficult night in Iowa, so he's struggling to get back on his feet," Scala said.

    "I think Biden is going to do very poorly in New Hampshire," Smith predicted.

    "He's already reduced staff, cut back on advertising, etcetera, here some time ago, and his team has been reducing expectations for New Hampshire. If he has another performance in New Hampshire like he did in Iowa, his campaign may be done."

    Qassem Soleimani

    Early in the debate, candidates were asked if they would have ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

    Buttigieg, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, said, "There is no evidence that that made our country safer".

    "This president has moved us this much closer to the brink of war, but it did not start with the Soleimani strike, it started with withdrawing us from the Iran nuclear deal that his own administration certified was working."

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    Asked again whether he would have ordered the attack, he did not give a yes or no answer.

    "It depends on the circumstances, it depends if there was an alternative, and it depends what the different effects would be, that's my point. This is not an episode of 24, this is a situation that requires that you actually evaluate the entire intelligence picture."

    Asked the same question, Joe Biden said he would not have ordered the attack.

    "There's no evidence yet of an imminent threat that was gonna come from him. These America first policies made America alone."

    Sanders said he would not have ordered the attack. There are bad leaders all over the world, he explained.

    "You cannot go around saying, you're a bad guy, we're going to assassinate you. If that happens, you're opening the door to international anarchy." He said the US has to strengthen the Department of State and its diplomatic capabilities, and bring countries together to work out their differences.

    Moments of unity

    During the debate, candidates emphasised unity against their common foe, President Donald Trump.

    Scala explained that that was likely because candidates who stay positive are often the most appealing. The risk with attacks is, "Democrats don't like Democrats going after other Democrats".

    Buttigieg was asked whether there is a danger in nominating a candidate who is still under the threat of investigation, referring to the Republicans investigating Biden's son.

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    Instead of attacking his opponent, Buttigieg said, "We're not going to let them change the subject. This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or any Biden, this is about abuse of power by the president."

    Asked if Sanders will be able to get the support he needs from Republicans across the aisle, Klobuchar said: "I like Bernie just fine. We actually worked together on a number of things, including pharmaceuticals. We actually had a vote late at night one time, Klobuchar-Sanders amendment..."

    "Sanders-Klobuchar," Sanders interjected, drawing laughs from the crowd.

    "No, no, it was not," Klobuchar continued, with a smile.

    She said their amendment to bring in less expensive drugs from other countries garnered 14 Republican votes. "They might not have noticed what was happening late at night, but we got those. And I think that's just an example of what we need to do here."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News