MANCHESTER, N.H. — Democratic presidential front-runners Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg beat back a barrage of attacks during a Friday night debate as rivals raised persistent questions about their ideology and experience, hoping to sow doubts about their ability to defeat President Donald Trump.
Reeling from a weak finish in this week’s Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden was a chief aggressor throughout the night. He questioned Sanders’ status as a democratic socialist and said Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, doesn’t have the background to lead in a complicated world. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is struggling to break into the top tier, voiced similar criticisms.
But Sanders and Buttigieg, who essentially tied in Iowa, largely brushed off the broadsides.
“Donald Trump lies all the time,” Sanders said in response to suggestions that Trump would use his self-described identity as a democratic socialist to brand him — and all Democrats — as radical.
Buttigieg sought to turn skepticism of his resume into a positive, portraying himself as a fresh face from outside Washington with experience in dealing with real-life problems and ready to lead a weary nation in a new direction.
“I’m interested in the style of the politics we need to put forward to actually finally turn the page,” Buttigieg said. He added a jab at Biden: “I freely admit that if you’re looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, you’ve got your candidate, and of course it’s not me.”
Friday marked the eighth and perhaps most consequential debate in the Democratic Party’s yearlong quest for a presidential nominee. The prime-time affair came just four days after Iowa’s chaotic caucuses — and four days before New Hampshire’s primary — with several candidates facing pointed questions about their political survival. While several candidates had strong moments, it was unclear the event would change the trajectory of the campaign.
Biden was especially explicit about the state of his candidacy during the opening moments, predicting he would “take a hit” in New Hampshire next week before the contest moves into more diverse states where he hopes to perform better.
He faced criticism on stage as someone too steeped in the ways of Washington to represent the change many Democratic voters say they are seeking. He responded by once again aligning himself with former President Barack Obama.
“The politics of the past I think were not all that bad,” Biden said. “I don’t know what about the past about Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad.”
But Biden had to defend his long record as the candidates sparred over the decision nearly two decades ago to send U.S. troops to Iraq.
Biden acknowledged anew that his vote in favor of the war authorization as a senator was a mistake, while Sanders said his Senate vote against deploying troops was proof of his judgment on national security issues. Buttigieg, who was in college at the time and later served in Afghanistan, said he would have opposed the war, too.
While the debate was heated at times, there were moments of unity with candidates aware that Democratic primary voters have little desire to see an all-out intraparty brawl. When a moderator asked Klobuchar to respond to Hillary Clinton’s comments that no one likes Sanders, Biden walked over and gave him a hug. Klobuchar, meanwhile, joked that Sanders is “just fine” and noted times when they had worked together on policy.
A somber Biden was appreciative when Buttigieg defended him and his son, Hunter Biden, against attacks from Trump in the impeachment inquiry.