U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg took incoming fire on electability issues from former Vice President Joe Biden and other rivals in the eighth presidential primary debate as Democrats search for a candidate capable of beating President Trump in November.
The debate Friday night in Manchester, N.H., was the last meeting of the candidates before the Granite State's primary on Tuesday, and candidates did not shy away from drawing attention to their rivals' perceived political vulnerabilities.
"The president wants very much to stick a label on every candidate," Biden said of how Trump would treat the eventual Democratic nominee. "Bernie’s labeled himself -- not me -- a democratic socialist. I think that's the label the president's going to lay on everyone running with Bernie if he's the nominee."
"The president wants very much to stick a label on every candidate."
Candidates also repeatedly hit Buttigieg on his experience, arguing the 38-year-old may not be equipped to beat Trump.
“He’s the mayor of a small city,” Biden said before going on to list several of his own major policy accomplishments as a U.S. senator and as former President Barack Obama's vice president, defending his "politics of the past" as effective. Biden touted his work on the Violence Against Women Act, Obama's economic stimulus package and same-sex marriage.
Billionaire Democratic booster Tom Steyer also piled on: "That’s why I’m worried about Mayor Pete. You need to be able to go toe-to-toe with this guy [Trump] and take him down on the debate stage or you’re going to lose."
"You need to be able to go toe-to-toe with this guy [Trump] and take him down on the debate stage or you’re going to lose."
Race and reparations
The candidates also sparred over issues related to race, with Steyer calling for reparations for African-Americans and Buttigieg clashing with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on criminal justice.
The ABC News moderators threw Buttigieg against a wall on his time as the South Bend mayor, noting, over his objections, that the rate of black arrests for drug possession increased after he took office.
“We adopted a strategy that said that drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder,” Buttigieg said. “These things are all connected, but that’s the point.”
"We adopted a strategy that said that drug enforcement would be targeted."
When asked whether Buttigieg’s answer was sufficient, Warren was terse.
“No,” she said. “You have to own up to the facts, and it’s important to own up to the facts of how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system.”
Biden also questioned Buttigieg's ability to attract support from minorities.
"Mayor Buttigieg is a great guy and a real patriot," Biden said. "[He] has not demonstrated he has the ability to, and we'll soon find out, to get a broad scope of support across the spectrum, including African-Americans and Latinos."
Embrace of socialism
As for the arguments over his embrace of socialism, Sanders defended himself, saying "it doesn't matter what Donald Trump says," pointing out that Trump will attack any Democratic candidate.
Buttigieg and Sanders also butted heads, with Buttigieg characterizing the self-labeled democratic socialist's politics as "my way or the highway."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sought to differentiate herself from Sanders, presenting herself as someone could win more moderate voters.
“I am the only one on this stage that has consistently won in red congressional districts – not once, not twice, but three times,” she said.
“I am the only one on this stage that has consistently won in red congressional districts – not once, not twice, but three times.”
Klobuchar closed with an emotional plea to New Hampshire voters, embracing a populist message and referencing former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a debate moment that struck some pundits as her best yet.
"I will tell you this, there is a complete lack of empathy in this guy in the White House right now and I will bring back to you," she said. "If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you and I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you’re going to pay for your child care or your long-term care, I know you and I will fight for you. … I do not have the biggest name up on this stage, I don’t have the biggest bank account, I’m not a political newcomer with no record, but I have a record of fighting for people."
Bloomberg looms large
One candidate didn't even need to be on the debate stage to loom large. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is skipping the early states and using his fortune to blanket the airwaves in Super Tuesday states, drew a rebuke from Warren.
“I don't think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into a nomination," she said. "I don't think any billionaire ought to be able to do it and I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns ought to do it.”
“I don't think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into a nomination."
Steyer emphasized the importance of the economy in response to Sanders telling his fellow candidate that they cannot "nibble around the edges" in order to get radical change like "Medicare-for-All."
"He’s crowing about it every day, and he’s going to beat us unless we beat him on the economy, stupid," Steyer said, calling back to ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos' time working for former President Bill Clinton, who adopted the slogan.
Sanders and Buttigieg are the two largest targets entering New Hampshire as they each have momentum and have claimed victory in the Iowa caucuses despite vote-counting problems in the state.
In the hours before the debate, the Trump administration ousted two people from their jobs who testified during the impeachment trial: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
Biden during the debate dinged Trump’s recent move to give radio talker Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom, saying, “We should be pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh.”
“We should be pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh.”
At the beginning Friday evening's event, Biden -- long seen as the frontrunner in the race -- sought to downplay expectations ahead of the New Hampshire primary, saying “I took a hit in Iowa and I’m probably going to take a hit here."
And in another memorable moment, Democrats in the debate hall applauded the mention of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah -- the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial this week.
On foreign policy, Steyer, Buttigieg and Biden got into a three-way dust-up that ended with both Steyer and Biden raising their voices.
Buttigieg argued that judgment was more important than tenure, saying Biden had shown bad judgment when he voted for the use of force authorization that allowed former President George W. Bush to start the Iraq War. The former mayor added that the problems of the new decade will require a new perspective from the commander-in-chief.
"Looking forward we’ve got to recognize how much is going to be on the plate of the next president. That is different in kind from what we have faced before," he said.
Biden admitted that he made a mistake in trusting Bush, but noted that he was one of the architects of the troop drawdown in Iraq at the beginning of the Obama administration.
"When we got elected the president turned to me with the entire security apparatus and said, 'Joe, I want you to organize getting 156,000 troops out of Iraq,'" Biden said. "I did that. I did that."
The exchange between Biden and Buttigieg prompted Steyer to complain that both were too focused on using the military to carry out American foreign policy.
"What we’re hearing here is a very long dissertation about exactly why America should be the world’s policemen," Steyer said. "So, when we’re talking about our role in the world and commander in chief, we have abandoned diplomacy, we don’t have a strategy and we don’t have allies."
That prompted an impassioned response from Biden, who raised his voice as he listed some of his foreign policy accomplishments.
"I was part of the reason putting that deal together with Iran. I was there," Biden said. "I was involved in that. I was also part of putting together the Paris climate accord. I was part of that. I’ve been part of every major initiative we’ve had relative to diplomacy."
Buttigieg and Biden also clashed on Supreme Court expansion. Buttigieg advocated an expansion of the court but also called for "structural reform so that some of the justices are not appointed through a partisan process. We cannot allow the Supreme Court to continue to become one more political battlefield."
Biden hit back, siding with popular liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has come out against Supreme Court expansion.
"I agree with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that’s who I agree with," Biden said before changing the subject to electability.
"We must win back the United States Senate this time out, and that’s why … you have to ask yourself, who is most likely to help get a senator elected in North Carolina, Georgia? Who can win Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota? Who can do that?"
'Not about Hunter Biden'
While Republicans on Capitol Hill are ramping up probes of the overseas activities of Biden’s son, Hunter, while Biden was vice president, the Democrats on the stage didn’t go there.
“We're not going to let them change the subject,” Buttigieg said of Republicans when asked a question about Hunter Biden. “This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden, or any Biden. This is about an abuse of power by the president."
At another point, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, cautioned Democrats against making their arguments all about the president.
"Donald Trump is the not the cause of all of our problems -- and we're making a mistake when we act like he is," Yang said. He added, “He is a symptom of a disease...It is our job of getting to the harder work of actually curing the disease."
"Donald Trump is the not the cause of all of our problems -- and we're making a mistake when we act like he is."
Co-hosted by ABC News, WMUR-TV and Apple News, the debate brought seven of the Democratic contenders to Saint Anslem College in Manchester ahead of that state's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. The debate comes as neither news organizations nor the Iowa Democratic Party have been able to call a winner in Monday's Iowa caucuses while Buttigieg and Sanders are both claiming victory in the state.
At the moment, Buttigieg has a narrow lead in "state delegate equivalents," or SDEs, which are what helps decide how many delegates candidates get to bring to the Democratic National Convention later this year. Sanders, on the other hand, leads in the popular vote from both the "first alignment" and the "second alignment" phases of the caucuses.
Those numbers could change, however, as the IDP has noted many irregularities in its vote count and it is highly likely candidates will call for reexaminations of the numbers. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez already has.
Biden is coming off what appears to be a fourth-place performance in Iowa that he characterized as a "gut punch" while the Klobuchar campaign is looking for a momentum boost that didn't come in the Hawkeye State as it currently sits significantly behind Biden in fifth-place.
Warren is comfortably in third place in Iowa and will try to make a case to her neighboring New Hampshire that she, and not Sanders -- who currently leads in most Granite State polls -- is the best New Englander to take on President Trump in November.
The Steyer and Yang campaigns are essentially throwing Hail Marys in New Hampshire after dismal finishes in Iowa. They'll battle for votes with other flagging campaigns that did not qualify for the New Hampshire debate.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was a late entrant into the race and didn't register in the Iowa caucuses. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has staked her entire campaign on New Hampshire, spending more time there than any other candidate. Sen. Mike Bennet, D-Colo., was on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" from New Hampshire in the lead-up to the Friday debate, looking to get national television exposure for his campaign which has struggled to gain any traction.