Five things to watch in New Hampshire primary debate
The final Democratic presidential debate before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary will feature seven candidates and stakes that are higher than ever on Friday night.
Following the botched Iowa caucuses, the candidates and observers are looking to New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary for clarity on the state of the race.
Speaking to supporters in the Granite State on Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden joked that “at this rate, New Hampshire will be the first in the country to get to vote.”
The debate — cohosted by ABC News, WMUR-TV and Apple News at St. Anselm College in Manchester and set to begin at 8 p.m. — will feature Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); former tech executive Andrew Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.
Here are five things to watch for:
1. Will Buttigieg and Sanders clash?
Buttigieg and Sanders emerged from the Iowa caucuses this week as the two leading candidates, and current — but still incomplete — results show them separated by only one-tenth of a percentage point.
They have both declared victory in the caucuses and are topping recent polls in New Hampshire, raising the potential for a no-holds-barred clash on the debate stage on Friday.
For Buttigieg, New Hampshire is shaping up to be a must-win state. Polls show him trailing relatively far behind his top rivals in Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth states to vote in the Democratic nominating contest, and a win in New Hampshire would give him a boost of momentum as he heads into less friendly territory.
But there’s pressure on Sanders, as well. He won the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2016 and, being from Vermont, holds something of a neighbor-state advantage.
Sanders touted his Iowa showing on Thursday during a press conference in New Hampshire, pointing to his 6,000-vote lead in the initial “alignment” of the caucuses. The Associated Press and other media organizations including The Hill, however, will declare the winner in Iowa based on the number of state delegate equivalents (SDEs) received by each candidate.
Buttigieg has also declared victory in Iowa and currently holds a slight advantage over Sanders in SDEs, which are used to determine the number of national delegates each candidate receives.
The dueling claims of victory are likely to be a touchy subject on Friday night, making a confrontation between the race’s youngest and oldest candidates all the more possible.
2. Will centrists go after one another — or Sanders?
Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s pursuit of the same block of moderates has threatened to split their voters, potentially easing the path to the nomination for a progressive such as Sanders. So when they take the debate stage on Friday, there will be the question of whether they’ll take aim at one another or at their chief progressive rival.
The three moderates all need a win in New Hampshire.
For Biden, the Granite State represents a chance to bounce back after a worse-than-expected showing in Iowa. Buttigieg is banking on a strong finish in the primary to give his campaign momentum before he enters less friendly electoral territory. And for Klobuchar, who’s currently running in a distant fifth place in Iowa, New Hampshire is an opportunity to prove that she’s still in the running for the nomination.
Already, Biden has signaled that he’s willing to go after both his moderate and progressive rivals.
The former vice president sharpened his attacks on both Buttigieg and Sanders on Wednesday, warning that nominating Sanders would fuel President Trump’s claims that Democrats up and down the ballot are socialists, while reprimanding Buttigieg for what he called criticism of former President Obama’s record.
“Mayor Pete likes to call me part of the old failed Washington. Was it a failure when I helped pass ObamaCare, the Paris Agreement, the Violence Against Women Act, or the assault weapons ban?” Biden tweeted. “I have a stronger record of passing big, progressive legislation than anyone running.”
Two other candidates, Yang and Steyer, are also looking for a strong finish in New Hampshire to keep their campaigns afloat. For Yang in particular the state carries significant weight; he said in a tweet this week that the Granite State is “the most natural home” for his campaign.
3. Warren and Sanders share the stage again
A rift tore open last month between Sanders and Warren, the leading progressives in the nominating contest, after reports surfaced that Sanders had told Warren during a private dinner in December 2018 that he did not believe a woman could win the White House.
Those allegations led to a tense exchange between the two in the last debate on Jan. 14, as well as a strained post-debate conversation in which they traded accusations that each had called the other one a “liar” on national television.
The feud has largely been overshadowed in recent weeks by other news: the Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump and the chaos surrounding the Iowa caucuses. But whether the issue rears its head at Friday’s debate remains an open question.
For Warren, there may be an incentive to go after Sanders. She’s currently running in third place in the Iowa caucuses and is in need of a top finish in New Hampshire. Confronting Sanders, the current polling leader in the state, could give her a boost ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
But doing so risks angering some of the very progressives whom Warren, who also hails from a neighboring state, is counting on.
4. Does Bloomberg hover over the debate?
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t competing in the New Hampshire primary. In fact, he’s not competing in any of the four early voting states. But how or whether he weighs on the discussion on Friday night remains a key question.
After a late entrance into the presidential race in November, Bloomberg has worked his way to the top tier of several national polls through an aggressive spending and advertising campaign.
His multibillion-dollar personal fortune gives him the ability to outspend virtually every one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, and he’s likely to be waiting for the other candidates on the other end of February, when he’ll begin appearing on primary ballots across the country.
The candidates may get a chance to go up against Bloomberg before then. The Democratic National Committee announced late last month that it would scrap a rule requiring candidates to amass a certain amount of grassroots donor support to qualify for its Feb. 19 debate in Nevada, paving the way for Bloomberg to potentially appear at the forum.
That prospect has already frustrated some candidates, including Sanders, who railed against the decision on Thursday, suggesting that Bloomberg’s wealth was the reason for the rule change.
“He’s worth $55 billion,” Sanders said. ”And I guess if you’re worth $55 billion you can get the rules changed for a debate.”
5. Will anyone actually be watching?
The debate in New Hampshire will be the first of the 2020 election cycle held on a Friday night, raising the question: How many people will actually tune in?
Ratings for debates historically decrease throughout each cycle; the earliest debates draw some of the largest audiences, while ratings for later debates begin the dwindle. What’s more, Friday evening is considered one of the worst slots for TV programming in the U.S. due to relatively low viewership.
There are also signs that voters are increasingly committed to their candidates of choice. A Monmouth University poll released on Thursday found that, in New Hampshire, nearly half of likely Democratic primary voters — 49 percent — are certain about whom they will vote for on Tuesday, while 46 percent said they could still change their mind.
Even if voters tune into the debate, it’s unclear just how much potential it has to move the needle in the primary race.
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