Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner on Saturday in Manchester, N.H. | Matt Rourke/AP Photo
MANCHESTER, N.H. — All day Saturday, Pete Buttigieg took a hail of criticism from Joe Biden about his youth and inexperience. On Saturday night, Buttigieg responded in kind before a throng of party activists, while Biden barely showed up.
The two joined the rest of the Democratic field at the SNHU Arena here, taking turns speaking to thousands of riled-up progressives. The crowd rallied around frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and offered an enthusiastic show of support for Elizabeth Warren, who’s sagging in polls and badly in need of a post-Iowa bounce.
Three days before the still-unsettled New Hampshire primary, 10 candidates shared a stage in the state for the final time at the annual McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner. Here are our six takeaways from the shindig.
Buttigieg didn’t mention the former vice president by name, but he didn’t have to. After Biden spent the day tearing into Buttigieg for his lack of anything more than small-town mayoral experience, Buttigieg took the stage first and struck back.
Reprising his criticism of establishment Washington — while failing to mention his own interest in joining that establishment, in his failed race for Democratic National Committee chair — Buttigieg likened his experience to that of the mayor of Manchester.
That, he said, “is very much the point. Because Americans in small rural towns, in industrial communities and yes, in pockets of our country’s biggest cities, are tired of being reduced to a punchline by Washington politicians.”
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg arrives to speak at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner on Saturday in Manchester, N.H. | Matt Rourke/AP Photo
There is more at work here than a war of words between a faltering Biden and an ascendant Buttigieg. Every campaign offers candidates a choice about how much focus to place on the future versus the past — on their own records and their opponents’ versus their aspirations and their plans.
Earlier Saturday, Biden’s campaign released a digital ad mocking Buttigieg’s record — “Pete Buttigieg revitalized the sidewalks of downtown South Bend,” a narrator intones — and closing with the message, “We’re electing a president. What you’ve done matters.”
That evening, Buttigieg spun the alternative, saying that he is running not only to end the era of Donald Trump, but to “launch the era that must come next.”
At the party’s summer convention in the same arena four years ago, then-Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was heckled and had to stop her speech over complaints about the party’s treatment of the Sanders campaign.
This year, Tom Perez, the current chair who is under fire for the Iowa caucus debacle, was originally slated to be one of the main speakers but canceled his appearance so late he remained on the speaking program. The local party had no comment.
Party insiders who were at the event questioned whether Perez wasn’t on stage in an effort to avoid a televised fracas among Democrats.
Leave it to Biden to demonstrate what a speech better suited for a small town hall sounds like in a cavernous arena.
It wasn’t great.
Biden, of course, was starting from a disadvantage. He all but conceded New Hampshire in the debate on Friday, volunteering, “I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take one here.”
A day later, more than a few New Hampshire voters arrived at the SNHU Arena bewildered that he’d say that. His cheering section was small — a wedge at the corner of the arena. His story-telling was no worse than other lower-polling candidates.
But for a former vice president who needs to turn his campaign around, it will not go down as an opportunity seized.
Biden took one stab at repairing relations, saying that in New Hampshire, “You know how to run elections.”
Despite every major candidate pushing their supporters to attend the event, Democrats came nowhere close to matching the size of Trump’s crowd when he was in the same arena last August.
Trump set a new record at the time, besting Elton John and WWE, and the campaign said they expect the same when he returns on Monday, the night before the election.
Campaigns traditionally use the party dinner to test their get-out-the-vote operation. When busses filled with college students came up from neighboring Massachusetts during the party’s summer convention, Warren was widely seen as the winner of the organizing battle. Warren won again Saturday night, with more than a quarter of the seats filled with supporters in her campaign’s teal-colored t-shirts and matching, synchronized LED bracelets.
Sanders supporters were armed with bright flashing, purple “Bernie” signs. Buttigieg supporters had four-foot “Boot-Edge-Edge” letters they’d hold up overhead.
Biden lost. His crew took up just a small sliver of the seats in a darkened section of the arena, smaller than supporters of Deval Patrick, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who is polling in the low single digits.
No matter who the nominee is, they will need Sanders voters to beat Trump.
That could be a problem for Buttigieg, who was the only candidate to get boos, heckles and chants, including “Wall Street Pete” and “Medicare-for-All” from Sanders’ supporters.
Sitting in Sanders’ section, their disdain for Buttigieg was transparent. Virtually no one clapped when he took the stage or after his speech.
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Both Biden and Amy Klobuchar received a milquetoast welcome from the Bernie cheering section. And when Biden took the stage, Sanders supporters got up to refill their beers or go see friends in other sections. Those who stayed said they struggled to follow the thread of his speech.
Klobuchar turned around on stage as she entered the arena to give a nod to the Sanders crew — “Hi, Bernie People,” she said — a nod they seemed to appreciate.
It’s no question by now that Klobuchar is at her best in debates — and that, so far, she’s having a hard time taking that show on the road.
So what’s a good debater to do? Mention the last debate, of course. And draw a burst of cheers.
“We have momentum like never before,” she said. “We have beaten the odds every step of the way.”
Klobuchar didn’t get the reception that Buttigieg did.
But what she had, unlike most of her competitors, was a substantial presence of visible supporters on the floor, where the party insiders sat. Many of them still think Klobuchar could find a spark.