Politics

Democratic candidates deliver sharply different messages before New Hampshire primary

The Boston Globe
Clockwise from left, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden made their cases in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday.

ROCHESTER, N.H. — The leading Democratic presidential candidates made sharply divergent final pitches across New Hampshire on Monday, as voters faced down the possibility of delivering another split verdict in the party’s desperate effort to figure out how to defeat President Trump.

The two candidates leading the polls here — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a 78-year-old democratic socialist, and Pete Buttigieg, a 38-year-old moderate who used to be the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — are very different. They finished virtually tied for first in Iowa, a result that did little to illuminate the question of whether Democrats are going to embrace sweeping social change or a more moderate path in order to win in November.

Sanders and Buttigieg took direct aim at each other on the day before the New Hampshire primary, not in an attempt to attract each others’ voters, but in hopes of emerging as the leading candidate on their side of the party’s divide between progressives and centrists.

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“Knowing how much depends on bringing Americans together, we cannot risk alienating Americans at this critical moment, and that’s where I part ways with my friend Senator Sanders,” Buttigieg told a small crowd of students and community members at Plymouth State University Monday, as he suggested that Sanders’ marquee proposal, Medicare for All, would spark too much opposition.

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Sanders, speaking behind a strip mall in Nashua where one of his campaign offices is located, reminded a corps of volunteers — his most ardent backers — of a key contrast between his populist campaign and that of his more moderate rivals.

“One of the things that differentiates our campaign from other campaigns — my friend Mr. Buttigieg and my friend Joe Biden, they have dozens and dozens of billionaires contributing to their campaign,” he said while standing on a loading dock and addressing supporters wedged between a dumpster and his makeshift stage.

“They have more than 40 billionaires contributing,” Sanders said. “We don’t have any billionaires!”

And Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been rising in the New Hampshire polls, made sure that those attending a meeting of the Nashua Rotary Club knew where she stood on socialism. “When we were asked at the last debate if we thought a socialist should lead the ticket, I was the only one that raised my hand and said, ‘No,’ ” she said.

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The hectic final day of campaigning unfolded in the approaching shadow of Trump himself. He flew to Manchester for a Monday night rally and has been poking fun at the Democratic party for the disarray over the problem-plagued Iowa caucuses.

Well aware of the poor optics of their apparent divisions, the candidates each sought to cast themselves as the most unifying option to take on the president, even as some of them levied barbs at the others.

Speaking in an ornate theater in Rochester, Senator Elizabeth Warren ticked off the ideas she liked from candidates who have already dropped out of the race, including Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker, and refrained from criticizing her rivals.

“We are now at a point in time where there’s great fluidity in this campaign and there’s a lot of folks shooting at other folks,” Warren said, speaking on her press bus. “Democrats cannot do a repeat of 2016. We can’t go into the general election divided and angry with each other.”

Warren is trying to dig herself out of the middling spot where she is mired in the polls in N.H. But instead of going on the attack, she spoke more personally, making a rare mention during her revamped stump speech of the tension between herself and her mother, who did not initially believe Warren should go to college.

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Former vice president Joe Biden, who is trying to avoid coming in fourth — or worse — in New Hampshire after his disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, also changed his tactics on Monday after spending much of the weekend painting Buttigieg and Sanders as too risky to nominate.

Instead, Biden focused most of his ire on Trump.

“He tells the American people that America should accept the devil’s bargain, that it’s okay... to sell the soul of this nation to help a few very, very wealthy people,” he told an audience at a snow-covered church in Gilford. “He’s dead wrong.”

Buttigieg and Sanders made their own pitches for unity, too. Buttigieg kicked off his rally by saying Democrats will win “with a message that brings us together, while Sanders called his rivals “friends” but said he is the only candidate who can make change happen once elected.

“That is what tomorrow is about,” Sanders said. “It is about bringing our people together to begin the process to end the presidency of Donald Trump.”

Voters often say they are eager to unite behind the eventual nominee. But Democrats interviewed around the state in recent days said they viewed the candidates on the other side of the political divide in the party with a mixture of suspicion and anxiety, suggesting that, whatever happens in New Hampshire, party unity could be easier said than done.

Joe Keefe, a former New Hampshire Democratic state party chairman who supports Biden, said Democrats should be worried if Sanders wins the nomination, saying he did not believe the country was “crying for socialism.”

And he said Buttigieg was not experienced enough to take on Trump in such a high-stakes moment. “I just believe the people in the end are going to decide that Pete is just not tested enough, not sufficiently vetted,” he said.

Keefe added: “We’re not just trying to stop Donald Trump, we’re really trying to stop Trumpism, which is a virulent disease affecting the Republic.”

Michael Ellege, 54, of Mont Vernon, said Buttigieg had inspired him to donate to a candidate for the very first time, but expressed deep reservations about a candidate like Sanders or Warren.

“I think they’re good people but I’m not on board with the progressive side of the party,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for the US right now.”

On the other side of the divide, Olivia Lovelace, 20, a college student, said at a Sanders event late last week that she had been caught off guard by Buttigieg’s rise.

“I think he’s a really establishment candidate,” Lovelace said. “He doesn’t really impress me or my friends.”

Sanders Burstein, a retired physician from Exeter, said he planned to support Warren and was trying not to worry about the possibility of New Hampshire Democrats sending mixed signals on Tuesday.

“I figure, I’m gonna vote and it will sort its way out,” Burstein said.

But it all left 80-year old Carol Farmer, a Nashua Republican who dislikes Trump so much she was planning to vote for a Democrat, feeling flummoxed about who to choose.

“This is a very confusing year,” Farmer said during an event with Klobuchar. “I’m not even sure that any of the ones that we’re thinking about are going to be the one that makes it, to be honest with you.”

Globe staff reporters Liz Goodwin, Laura Krantz, Jazmine Ulloa, and Stephanie Ebbert contributed to this report.

Jess.Bidgood@globe.com@jessbidgood