New Hampshire anoints Bernie Sanders as front-runner, on good night for Buttigieg and Klobuchar

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) takes the stage during a primary night event on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Manchester, N.H. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Todd J. Gillman The Dallas Morning News (TNS)

NASHUA, N.H. — Sen. Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, anointing the democratic socialist the front-runner as Democrats also conferred decisive stamps of approval on two moderates, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

For Joe Biden, the two-term vice president, a weak finish put his campaign on death watch, a stunning setback for the longtime front-runner.

Sanders’ march will send shudders through a party establishment that fears he’s too radical to win. He and Buttigieg fought to a near tie in Iowa, and Tuesday’s results reaffirmed that the oldest and youngest contenders in the field are on a collision course.

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“This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sanders, 78, told a gym filled with screaming supporters in Manchester, most young enough to be his grandkids. “We have an unprecedented grassroots movement from coast to coast … . We are putting together an unprecedented multigenerational, multiracial movement..

Buttigieg, 38, congratulated Sanders on his “strong showing,” claiming vindication and momentum if not victory.

“So many of you decided that a middle class mayor and a veteran from the industrial Midwest was the right choice to take on this president, not in spite of that experience but because of it,” he declared before a cheering crowd of 1,200 at Nashua Community College.

He poked at Sanders’ call for “revolution,” and also issued zingers aimed at the president. “If Washington were serving America well, a guy like Donald Trump would never have come within cheating distance of the Oval Office in the first place.”

For Klobuchar, an underdog who ran fifth in Iowa, a strong third-place finish on Tuesday rewards steady progress and sets up a showdown with Buttigieg for the centrist mantle.

“Hello, America. I’m Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump. My heart is full tonight,” the Minnesota senator told cheering backers in Concord. “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare is that the people in the middle, the people who are tired of the name-calling and the mudslinging, have someone to vote for in November.”

Biden tried to hobble Buttigieg by belittling his experience as mayor of South Bend, Ind., a city smaller than Manchester. Sanders blasted his young rival for cozying up to wealthy donors.

Like Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren got squeezed in New Hampshire, a painful disappointment for a senator from neighboring Massachusetts.

“It is clear that Senator Sanders and Mayor Buttigieg had strong nights,” she told supporters in Manchester, also crediting Klobuchar for proving that women candidates can’t be discounted. “But the fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn.”

“These harsh tactics might work if you’re willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing,” Warren said, calling for unity and insisting that with 98% of delegates still up for grabs, the race is far from over.

As usual, the one-two punch of Iowa and New Hampshire, eight days apart, winnowed weaker candidates. And outright victory wasn’t the only measure of success.

Andrew Yang – the entrepreneur and political neophyte who made a $1,000-a-month government payment to everyone 18 and older, no strings attached, the centerpiece of his campaign – dropped out. So did Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

Biden’s team insisted throughout the day that he would fight at least through Super Tuesday on March 3, when Texas, California and a dozen other larger states award delegates. After all, the Democratic turnout in New Hampshire Tuesday roughly equaled the Democratic turnout in Dallas and Tarrant counties in 2016.

Sanders topped Hillary Clinton 60-38 in New Hampshire, in a two-way field.

Biden’s reversal is profound, though. He held the front-runner spot for roughly a year before running a distant fourth in Iowa.

Polls released this week showed Sanders had overtaken him as Democrats’ top choice nationally.

Biden struggled so badly in New Hampshire that he decided on just a few hours’ notice to skip his own election night event in Nashua. He flew to South Carolina, where he’s hoping for rescue Feb. 29 from African American voters who typically dominate the primary.

“It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started,” Biden told supporters in Columbia, S.C. “You shouldn’t be able to win it without black and brown voters.”

That was a swipe at Buttigieg, who has made hardly any inroads with nonwhite voters.

But the South Carolina primary is 18 days away — an eternity in politics and ample time for rivals and pundits “to be ordering your tombstone,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “When you announce to everyone that you’re giving up before the polls close, before people leave work to drive to the polls, it’s just another in a long list of stumbles.”

Biden held his own in Friday night’s televised debate at Saint Anselm, an event that gave Klobuchar a big boost. On the stump, he wavered between combative and disjointed. In a widely mocked moment, he called a student who asked him a question a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” — a phrase he has used before, and has long attributed to a John Wayne film.

“He gets up and speaks extemporaneously, and people love that sense that he is a real person, that he’s not spitting out a memorized stump speech,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, told reporters at a roundtable hosted by Bloomberg News, when asked by The Dallas Morning News about his halting delivery and reliance on written material.

Most presidential candidates deliver their stump speeches off the cuff.

Biden did show a feisty side in blasting Buttigieg for a lack of experience.

A scathing digital ad contrasted his own work at the side of President Barack Obama, tackling international crises and shepherding landmark health care legislation and economic recovery, with Buttigieg’s municipal work paving sidewalks and beautifying neighborhoods.

The attacks seemed to sink in, giving some New Hampshire voters pause about Buttigieg.

That didn’t accrue to Biden’s benefit, though — just as, in the 2016 GOP fight in New Hampshire, Chris Christie’s attacks hobbled Marco Rubio, days before Christie dropped out.

“I like Pete’s temperament. He’s really calm. He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s been in the military and he understands the price of war,” said David Aman, 53, a software developer from Hanover. But, he said, “Pete’s a little too green. Amy has been in the trenches.”

Voters seeking a combination of centrism and experience flocked to Klobuchar, who likewise has needled the former mayor for having never held federal or statewide office.

“Voters know he’s 38. They know he’s an inexperienced mayor. But when Pete Buttigieg opens his mouth, Democrats and independents are attracted to him,” Levesque said. “They like what he says and how he says it. He doesn’t shame Republicans. He’s not hysterically angry about Donald Trump.”

Biden’s team argued that in a multi-candidate contest, winners have survived disappointments in early contests.

“Candidates never want to drop out,” Levesque said. They just don’t always have a choice because “when the money dries up, it dries up.”

Sanders still needs to demonstrate that his pluralities in Iowa and New Hampshire don’t represent his ceiling.

Party insiders are dubious, and the determination to stop him — and the disbelief that he can really pull off a victory — mirrors the GOP establishment’s stance toward Trump four years ago.

Sanders has cast himself as a movement candidate, able to excite the first-time voters needed to defeat Trump. Turnout in Iowa was middling, though — as it was in New Hampshire.

That’s not the uprising needed to quell doubts from fellow Democrats put off by his brand of democratic socialism or concerned that it would alienate large blocs in a general campaign. Trump has already hammered Democrats as socialists.

Sanders and Warren, as senators from neighboring Vermont and Massachusetts, had been presumed to have an edge in New Hampshire.

Warren volunteers in teal campaign shirts flooded across the state line, canvassing neighborhoods and cheering her at events. But after surging last fall, she struggled Tuesday, just as she had in Iowa.

The conventional narrative has pitted Sanders and Warren in the progressive “lane,” with Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar scrambling for primacy among voters who prefer a centrist option, for policy reasons or out of calculus about “electability.”

But in the final days, it became clear that some Warren fans were flocking to Klobuchar rather than to Sanders as expected.

“She got a big boost out of that debate, and she had a win every day” in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary,” Levesque said of Klobuchar. “She fits New Hampshire very well. Her style, her campaign.”

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