CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE – Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg locked horns in their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination Sunday as they scrapped for votes with just two days to go before New Hampshire’s closely-watched primary.
The 78-year-old Vermont senator and the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came top of the first contest in Iowa — marred by messy confusion about the result — giving each important momentum as Democrats seek a candidate to take on President Donald Trump in November.
Sanders, a leftist who won the New Hampshire nomination by a landslide in 2016, led in four polls released Sunday, each of which had the moderate Buttigieg in second followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and then former vice President Joe Biden.
“I think we have an excellent chance to win,” Sanders told CNN’s “State of the Union” before a final push on the ground in the small northeastern state.
With the primary season underway in earnest, earlier collegiality among Democrats has fallen away.
“I am running against a candidate, Pete Buttigieg, among others, who has raised contributions from more than 40 billionaires,” Sanders told CNN. “Our support is coming from the working class of this country.”
His campaign, based heavily on small donors, says it raised $25 million last month.
Buttigieg, appearing separately on CNN, turned aside the billionaire charge, quipping, “Well, Bernie’s pretty rich, and I would happily accept a contribution from him.”
Turning serious, the 38-year-old Indiana politician added that he was “building the movement that is going to defeat Donald Trump,” boosted by donations from some 2 million people.
Both Buttigieg and Biden — whose status as national frontrunner for the nomination was shaken by a damaging fourth-place showing in Iowa’s caucuses — said it will be much harder for the party to defeat Trump in November if Sanders is its flag-bearer.
Sanders’ positions at the very left of the American spectrum, with expansive programs like extending the Medicare program to all Americans, have been eagerly seized on by Trump, who told an interviewer last week, “I think he’s a communist.”
Buttigieg said it would be “a lot harder” for the party to win behind Sanders than behind a more moderate candidate.
And Biden told ABC’s “This Week” that “I think it’s going to be incredibly more difficult” to win with Sanders, though he vowed to “work like hell for him” if the senator does win the nomination.
Sanders shrugged off the criticism that he is too radical for American voters.
“The truth is that our agenda is precisely the agenda that the overwhelming number of people want,” Sanders told CNN, pointing to his enthusiastic support among young voters.
As Buttigieg has risen from practical anonymity, he has faced ever sharper criticism — including in a cutting ad aired over the weekend by the Biden camp — for his lack of national experience and his supposed difficulty connecting with black voters, a key demographic.
“He’s not been able to unify the African-American community,” Biden said, adding that the eventual nominee will have to perform well in states far larger and more diverse than predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
Buttigieg responded on ABC that “I’ll have to work to earn that vote, just as I did in South Bend. I was returned to office by a multiracial coalition.”
After listening to Buttigieg at a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire on Sunday, Katie Morgan, 20, said he was “interesting and smart.”
But she added, “I personally prefer a candidate with a little more experience. I do think that being (38) and the mayor of a small town is not quite the resume I want to see in a presidential candidate.”
Recent history shows it is nearly impossible for a Democrat to win the party’s nomination without placing in the top two in Iowa or New Hampshire.
The results there shape candidates’ images and media narratives, just as voters nationwide are beginning to focus on the race.
Both Biden and Warren said they could be the exception to that rule.
After New Hampshire, the candidates turn to Nevada on Feb. 22, and South Carolina on Feb. 29, both more diverse states.
Then comes “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when 14 states vote.
Also in the race is billionaire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign.
He is skipping the first four nominating contests, focusing instead on Super Tuesday.