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Buttigieg and Sanders clash on the debate stage after close finish in the Iowa caucuses

Posted February 7, 2020 6:34 p.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2020 10:32 p.m. EST

Sanders and Buttigieg facing off in New Hampshire debate as they vie to seize control of Democratic race

— The top two Democratic vote-getters in Iowa tangled fiercely in New Hampshire on Friday night with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders suggesting that Pete Buttigieg's credibility would be beholden to big donors who have financed his presidential campaign.

Buttigieg was the target of nearly all of his rivals on the debate stage Friday night, but the Sanders-Buttigieg clash was among the most closely watched because the two are also vying for victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

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"If we want to change America, you're not going to do it by electing candidates who are going out to rich people's homes, begging for money," Sanders said, reprising an argument he had used against the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor earlier Friday on the campaign trail. "The way we're going to do it is to build a mass movement of working people who are prepared to stand up, not take money from these billionaires, not take money from Wall Street, but stand up to the drug companies and Wall Street."

Buttigieg replied that Democrats are in "the fight of our lives" against President Donald Trump, who, he said, raised $25 million on Friday with his allies, according to news reports.

"We need to go into that fight with everything that we've got," said Buttigieg, who has refused money from corporate PACs.

He defended his record by noting that he has sued pharmaceutical companies, and has campaigned on raising wages and raising taxes on corporations, as well as the wealthy.

"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," he added, "because mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not exactly an establishment fundraising powerhouse."

"This is a time for addition, not rejection, for belonging, not exclusion," he said.

It echoed a line that Buttigieg had used earlier in the night to criticize Sanders. Buttigieg described the race against Trump as a new moment in American politics, one that required a new style of leadership that he said he could offer.

"This is a moment where the next president is going to face challenges,the likes of which we hadn't even thought of a few years, or decades, ago and politically, we're facing a fundamentally new problem with President Donald Trump," Buttigieg said.

He added that it would be the wrong move for voters to choose a nominee who "is dividing people with the politics that says if you don't go all the way to the edge it doesn't count."

"Are you talking about Sen. Sanders?" the moderator asked.

"Yes," Buttigieg replied. "Because we've got to bring as many people as we can into this process."

A new poll out from NBC News and Marist in New Hampshire, which was conducted after the Iowa caucuses, found Sanders topping the field in the Granite State with 25%, closely followed by Buttigieg at 21%. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were tied in a distant third place and no one else rose above single digits.

Though he and Sanders were nearly tied in the long-delayed results released by the Iowa Democratic Party, Buttigieg appears to be benefiting from a much stronger-than-expected finish in the Hawkeye State.

Buttigieg was the natural target in Friday's debate and his opponents focused on his inexperience. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, argued she too was a fresh face on the stage and that "59, my age, is the new 38," a reference to Buttigieg's age.

She forcefully argued that he was not taking weighty matters like impeachment seriously enough.

"Three of us were jurors in that impeachment hearing. You said it was exhausting to watch, and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons," Klobuchar said. "It is easy to go after Washington, because that's a popular thing to do. ... It is much harder to lead, and much harder to take those difficult positions."

Buttigieg also faced tough questioning in Friday's debate in New Hampshire after a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, with one of the toughest coming on the disparity arrest rates for black residents in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, during his time as mayor and criticisms of his lack of experience.

The moderator noted that a black resident in South Bend was four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white resident. That racial disparity was higher than the rest of the state and the rest of the nation.

Buttigieg replied that drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average, but said "that there is no question that systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system, and my city was not immune."

The former mayor added that many things need to change "in order for us to prevent violence and remove the effects of systemic racism not just from criminal justice, but from our economy from health from housing, and from our democracy itself."

"Sen. Warren, is that a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg," one of the moderators asked.

"No," she replied. "You have to own up to the facts."

"For the exact same crime study after study now shows that African Americans are more likely than whites to be detained to be arrested, to be taken to trial, to be wrongfully convicted and receive harsher sentences," she said. "We need to rework our criminal justice system from the very front end."

Biden made the first punch, using a line that he has been making for more than a month on the trail: that this year is not the time to take a risk on a political novice.

Buttigieg, he said, "is a great guy and a real patriot, but he's a mayor of a small city who has done some good things." He said Buttigieg had not demonstrated the ability to get broad "support across the spectrum, including African Americans and Latinos."

Figuring out if a progressive or a centrist can beat Trump

The main question in the debate was the candidates' electability: whether a progressive like Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, could defeat Trump in November or the party should have a centrist candidate.

Moderator George Stephanopoulos posed the first question about Sanders' electability to Biden, who has said Trump would use Sanders' socialist background as a weapon against him.

"The President wants very much to stick a label on every candidate. We don't only have to win this time, we have to bring along the rest of the United States Senate," Biden said. "Bernie's labeled himself not me."

Even as the night wore on and moderators turned to other topics, the candidates continued to return to the question of electability. When asked about the makeup of the Supreme Court, Biden pointed to the importance of down-ballot elections and the Democrats' hope of retaking the US Senate.

"You have to ask yourself, who is most likely to help get a senator elected in North Carolina, Georgia?" Biden asked. "Who can win Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota?"

"Are you kidding me?" Klobuchar interjected before Biden acknowledged that he agreed she could win

"You've got to be able to not just win, you got to bring along a United States Senate, or this becomes moot," Biden said.

Earlier in the night, when Sanders was asked why Democrats shouldn't be worried about the labels that Trump would use against him, he argued that he would be able to bring people together and bring new voters into the process.

"I believe that the way we beat Trump is by having the largest voter turnout in the history of this country," Sanders said. "That is appealing to working class people who have given up on the political process, because they don't believe anybody is hearing their pain, perceiving that pain, feeling their pain, and we got to bring young people into the political process."

But when asked whether others on the stage were worried about the fate of their party should it be led by a democratic socialist, other Democrats raised their hand.

"Bernie and I work together all the time, but I think we are not going to be able to out divide the divider-in-chief," Klobuchar said. "Donald Trump's worst nightmare is a candidate that will bring people in, from the middle, the people that are tired of the noise and the nonsense."

Biden later circled back to a critique of Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan, accusing him of refusing to tell the American people what the real cost of the plan would be. He argued that plan would be an albatross in a race against Trump.

"How much is it going to cost? Who's going to pay for it? It will cost more than the entire, the entire federal budget we spend now, more than entire budget," Biden said. "The idea middle class taxes aren't going to go up, is just crazy."

Biden touts foreign policy experience but fends off Iraq War criticism

Buttigieg, Biden and Sanders once again tangled over the former vice president's vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq when he was a senator from Delaware.

"I believe that I have the judgment to help us get through these situations," Buttigieg said. "Obviously, the vice president made the wrong decision when it came to such an important moment in our foreign policy. ... We've got to recognize just how much is going to be on the plate of the next president that is different in kind from what we have faced before. It's not just about dealing with the aftermath of the war in Iraq, it's about preventing a war with Iran."

Biden responded that his vote on the Iraq War was a mistake and repeated a false account of his support for the war.

"I said 14 years ago I trusted (President) George (W.) Bush to keep his word. He said he was not going to go into Iraq. He said he was only using this to unite the United Nations, to insist we get inspectors" into Iraq, Biden said.

Biden noted that once he and President Barack Obama took office, "the President turned to me with the entire security apparatus, and said, 'Joe, I want you to organize getting 156,000 troops out of Iraq.' "

He touted his relationships with leaders around the world, noting he had taken part in major achievements including the Paris climate accord.

"I know every one of these world leaders by the first names," Biden said. "They call me; I talk to them; and I believe I can get it done."

In an impassioned moment, Biden urged the audience to stand and applaud Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council who testified during the impeachment hearings. Trump fired Vindman earlier on Friday.

"I think we should all stand now and give Colonel Vindman a show of support," Biden said, throwing his hands above the podium. "Get up there!"

Some in the audience stood up and cheered as Biden egged them on. He also said that Trump "should be pinning a medal on Vindman, and not Rush Limbaugh."

Trump awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom this week during the State of the Union address, after Limbaugh had announced that he had advanced lung cancer.

Debating if voters will "like" Sanders

The moderators also asked the Democratic contenders about Sanders' electability -- specifically the recent comments by his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton.

Clinton told the Hollywood Reporter that "nobody likes" Sanders and "nobody wants to work with him." In that interview, Clinton added that Sanders "got nothing done. He was a career politician."

On stage, Klobuchar defended Sanders.

"I like Bernie just fine," she said to laughter.

She noted that they had worked on a number of pieces of legislation together, including lowering the price of pharmaceutical drugs -- pointing out that they got 14 Republican votes.

"I think that it is just an example of what we need to do here," Klobuchar said. "We must unite, but the way that we unite is by having an optimistic economic agenda for America."

Sanders defended his electability by noting that he won 25% of the Republicans in his state. He noted that Republicans care about some of his big priorities, including protecting civil liberties and the high cost of prescription drugs.

"There are ways that we can work with Republicans on issues where we have a common basis," Sanders said.

He dismissed Clinton's comments by stating it was time to move beyond the 2016 election.

"Our job is to look forward," he said. "I hope that Secretary Clinton, and all of us can come together and move in that direction."

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

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