That is the urgent question facing Democrats frightened by the prospect of their party following a Pied Piper named Bernie Sanders. Especially since Sanders in the debate still lacked good answers to questions about his mixed record on gun control and his flirtation with the NRA in the 1990s.
Mike Bloomberg may prove to be the establishment’s savior if he can pull off a dramatic appearance as soon as the curtain rises for the second act of the Democratic drama on Super Tuesday. But the former Republican mayor of New York is even less of a real Democrat than Sanders, who runs as an independent for the Senate. And at a moment when “billionaire” is the leading epithet in the Democratic lexicon, does the party really want to nominate one of the richest men in the world?
All this brings us back to the other three serious candidates on the ABC News debate stage—Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.
who remains tied for the lead amid the Iowa caucus crackup, did what he had to
do Friday night, which was survive. Partly because of his limited political
résumé and partly because of his lack of discernible African American support,
Buttigieg again faced tough questioning over his record as South Bend mayor,
especially about racial disparities in sentences for drug crimes.
Even though Buttigieg is running as the charisma candidate of 2020, he doesn’t inspire the same visible passions that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did at this point in their own races for the White House. At virtually every Obama rally in 2008, someone would shout from the bleachers in a crowded high-school gymnasium, “We love you, Obama.” Mayor Pete seldom receives such enthusiastic greetings.
Elizabeth Warren, a candidate rarely at a loss for words, was oddly invisible during the first hour of the New Hampshire debate.
But she rebounded strongly when she went after Biden and Buttigieg, in particular, for their hypocrisy in saying that they oppose Citizens United while reaping the benefits of TV ad campaigns funded by Super PACs. Warren demanded in a blunt challenge to her rivals, “Put your money where your mouth is and say no to the PACs.”
Campaign reform—which is often dismissed as a niche issue that only appeals to good-government purists—has a proud history in the New Hampshire primary. In 2000, John McCain, who would go on to spearhead a sweeping campaign finance reform law, won the state’s Republican primary in an 18-point landslide, thanks to the support of reform-minded independents, who, in New Hampshire, can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries.
Warren, however, will have trouble following his lead. Nothing happened on the debate stage to change the slow downward arc of her campaign. Three of the winners of the last five contested Democratic primaries in New Hampshire have come from adjoining states. But somehow Warren—despite being a familiar face from Boston television—is mired in the low double digits in all of the state’s recent polls.
Many candidates who finish fifth in the Iowa caucuses hold a sad-eyed press conference to withdraw from the race. That’s what Biden did in 2008. But on Friday night, Amy Klobuchar—mostly powered by gumption and newspaper endorsements—persisted in making her last-ditch stand in New Hampshire.
Fifth-place candidates labor under the burden of being ignored on debate stages and everywhere else. Which is why it was so striking that Klobuchar dominated Friday night’s debate from the beginning. It was a virtuoso performance that will become part of New Hampshire primary lore, no matter how Klobuchar fares on Tuesday.
Perhaps her best moment came when she was asked about Bloomberg’s billions. She began with a dead-on observation, “People don’t look at the guy in the White House and say, ‘Can we get someone richer?’ I don’t think they think that.”
Then, in the kind of adroit pivot that should be taught during all debate prep sessions for the next 10 years, Klobuchar began talking about her personal biography, “My grandpa was an iron ore miner.... [He] saved money in a coffee can to send my dad to a two-year community college. That was my family’s trust.”
Is it too late for Klobuchar?
Maybe. But University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, a leading expert on the primary, told me Saturday morning, “Klobuchar demonstrated last night why party elites were too quick to rally around the former vice president as the moderate establishment candidate.”
New Hampshire primary voters—who are notorious late deciders—love comeback stories. On the eve of the 1992 primary, Bill Clinton was facing oblivion from twin scandals about his affair with the lounge singer Gennifer Flowers and his special treatment from his Arkansas draft board during the Vietnam War.
Instead of cringing and cowering in the corner, Clinton gave one of the greatest political speeches I have ever witnessed. At a crowded Elks Club in Dover, Clinton told New Hampshire voters, “I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance. I’ll be there for you until the last dog dies.”
He eventually finished second behind former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas and managed to get away with crowning himself “The Comeback Kid.” Similarly, in 1968, antiwar crusader Eugene McCarthy transformed the presidential race when he finished second in New Hampshire behind incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.
Beating expectations is what it is all about for Klobuchar, who should get a major bump from positive postdebate coverage in the final 72 hours before the primary. If she beats Biden here or even passes Warren for third, it will upend the Democratic race. And, yes, Klobuchar could then rightfully call herself “The Comeback Kid.”