As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target

As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target
© Getty Images

Two and a half months before Iowa Democrats meet to caucus, the presidential candidates vying for their support danced around each other in a status quo debate during which few seemed to want to risk their candidacies on explosive confrontations.

The 10 candidates onstage largely rehashed their standard stump speeches in front of a boisterous audience at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, at times taking pains to avoid the fights moderators tried to stoke.

But as new polls show South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Funky Academic:' Public has been 'groomed to measure progress by firsts' Biden administration in talks with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti for India ambassador post: reports Business groups target moderate Democrats on Biden tax plans MORE surging ahead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the rare sharp elbow deployed between contenders showed the contours of the contest have not changed much in recent weeks and that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE remains a top target even as the millennial mayor rises. 


Though his poll numbers have slipped in early states, Biden remains atop national polls of Democratic voters — and therefore a threat to his fellow candidates. On Wednesday, he took criticism from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Sanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' MORE (I-Vt.) for his support of the Iraq War, from Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharStrengthen CBP regulations to reduce opioid deaths Why isn't Washington defending American companies from foreign assaults? Republicans float support for antitrust reform after Trump Facebook ban upheld MORE (D-Minn.), who argued she was more electable, and from Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerBush testifies before Congress about racist treatment Black birthing people face during childbirth, pregnancy Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE (D-N.J.) over his refusal to endorse legalized marijuana.

Biden came prepared with his own jabs as he tries to reverse his slumping poll numbers. His campaign telegraphed an attack on Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFree Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech Debate over ICBMs: Will 'defund our defenses' be next? Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders MORE's (D-Mass.) "Medicare for All" plan, and at one point he even criticized low-polling billionaire hedge fund manager Tom SteyerTom SteyerTop 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study California Democrats weigh their recall options Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray MORE for past investments in coal companies. He reiterated what has been his campaign's foundational message, that he would be best positioned to beat President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE in November.

"I think we have to ask ourselves the honest question, who is most likely to do what needs to be done, produce a Democratic majority in the United States Senate, maintain the House and beat Trump?" Biden said.

But Biden's most significant opponent on Wednesday may have been himself, as he stumbled through several answers, correcting himself even on the answers he appeared to have practiced most. 

"We should build on ObamaCare, provide the plan I put forward before anybody in here, adding a Medicare option in that plan and not make people choose. Allow people to choose, I should say," Biden said, hitting plans from Sanders and Warren to expand Medicaid to all Americans. 


Later, he claimed to have been endorsed by the "only" African American woman ever elected to the United States Senate — while standing several podiums away from the second African American woman elected to the United States Senate.

"So far his enduring support in the Democratic primary hasn't been based on debate performance," said Adam Hodge, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "Tonight [Biden] explicitly made the electability argument and linked it directly to electing more Democrats who can pass his agenda."

Buttigieg, the new front-runner who has irritated some of his opponents, has taken the lead in polls conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN in Iowa and for St. Anselm College in New Hampshire in recent days. He skated through the vast majority of Wednesday's debate without suffering significant damage, even as moderators prompted other candidates to engage.   

Klobuchar said last week that a woman with Buttigieg's equivalent experience would not have been on the debate stage; on Wednesday she called Buttigieg qualified. Harris expressed frustration earlier this week with a stock photo Buttigieg's campaign had used that showed a woman from Kenya rather than the United States; at the debate she acknowledged that Buttigieg had apologized. Biden, who has suffered most from Buttigieg's rise, did not engage the young mayor, and neither did Warren, who had sparred with him the most in the last several debates.

Both Klobuchar and Harris circled back to Buttigieg in the closing minutes of the debate. Klobuchar credited Buttigieg with saying "the right words" on election reform measures, but added, "I actually have the experience leading."

Harris, asked to criticize Buttigieg's use of the stock photo, offered a broader if subtler critique that he would struggle to rebuild the coalition that carried former President Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012. 

"The larger issue is that for too long I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that are the backbone of the Democratic Party and have overlooked those constituencies," Harris said. "We've got to recreate the Obama coalition to win." 

But as candidates danced around Buttigieg, it was a far lesser-known contender, Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials Tulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' MORE (D-Hawaii), who seemed to draw the most fire among the other nine candidates on stage.

Gabbard, an iconoclast who stands apart from mainstream Democratic positions on foreign policy and who once opposed same-sex marriage, clashed with Harris at an earlier debate. Harris seemed to be waiting for her chance to respond Wednesday, when she said Gabbard "spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama."

Later, Gabbard attacked Buttigieg for saying he would be open to sending American troops to Mexico, distorting his words from a forum with Hispanic voters on Sunday during which he talked about security cooperation between the two neighbor nations.  

"Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?" Buttigieg asked. "If your question is about experience, let's also talk about judgement. One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. I have in my experience, such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn't accumulated in Washington, enough judgement that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that."

The crowd audibly applauded both Harris and Buttigieg.

Wednesday's debate marked the first of the Democratic primary contest in which candidates were asked about the complex foreign policy challenges facing the globe today — whether to negotiate with the Taliban or North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea has much to consider — when, and if, talks resume Pompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' Ted Cruz rips new 'Humans of CIA' video: 'We've come a long way from Jason Bourne' MORE or how to handle the relationship with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden 'confident' meeting with Putin will take place soon Blinken: US stands with Ukraine in face of Russian aggression Russia keeping 80K troops at border amid NATO exercise, US officials say MORE or demonstrations in Hong Kong. 

It also marked the first Democratic debate in which Warren did not dominate the conversation. Though Warren talked for a longer period of time than any other candidate, she was neither the source nor the target of major flashpoints throughout the night.

With more than two months to go before Iowa voters caucus, Democratic strategists said the campaigns are still focusing on introducing themselves to voters — especially at a moment when most political attention is focused on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. 

"People got a contrast today between a party talking about their lives versus a party running a playbook from 'The Sopranos,'" said Jesse Ferguson, a former top aide to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE's 2016 campaign. "Candidates are still introducing themselves to voters, and polls show the majority of primary voters are still not firmly committed to a candidate." 

There is plenty of time left for the polls to fluctuate — at this point in the 2004 election cycle, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) were fighting for the lead in Iowa. Several weeks later, Dean finished third and Gephardt fourth, behind former Sens. John KerryJohn KerryChina emitted more greenhouse gasses than US, developed world combined in 2019: analysis Overnight Energy: Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process| EPA official directs agency to ramp up enforcement in overburdened communities | Meet Flint prosecutor Kym Worthy Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process MORE (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.).