As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target

As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target
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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 ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Poll: 2020 general election remains wide open 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 BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE remains a top target even as the millennial mayor rises. 

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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 SandersGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (I-Vt.) for his support of the Iraq War, from Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Teamsters to host presidential forum with six 2020 Democrats Democrats hit gas on impeachment MORE (D-Minn.), who argued she was more electable, and from Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerLGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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 Ann WarrenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE's (D-Mass.) "Medicare for All" plan, and at one point he even criticized low-polling billionaire hedge fund manager Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Teamsters to host presidential forum with six 2020 Democrats Booker notes 'anger' over more billionaires than black candidates in 2020 race 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 John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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. 

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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 GabbardGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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's Kim makes second visit to sacred mountain ahead of denuclearization deadline North Korea: US will choose what 'Christmas gift' it wants Trump resurrects 'Rocket Man' nickname for North Korean leader MORE or how to handle the relationship with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOPEC meetings may provide economic answers — or just more questions Germany expels two Russian diplomats following slaying in Berlin Putin signs crackdown on foreign-sponsored journalists 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 ClintonThree legal scholars say Trump should be impeached; one thinks otherwise Report: Barr attorney can't provide evidence Trump was set up by DOJ Jayapal pushes back on Gaetz's questioning of impeachment witness donations to Democrats 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 Forbes KerryNew Hampshire parochialism, not whiteness, bedevils Democrats Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows to push for Paris climate goals | Senate confirms Brouillette to succeed Perry at Energy | EPA under attack from all sides over ethanol rule MORE (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.).