MANCHESTER, UNITED STATES (AFP) – Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg locked horns in their fight for the United States (US) Democratic presidential nomination as they scrambled 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 momentum as Democrats seek a candidate to take on US President Donald Trump in November.
Sanders, a leftist who won the New Hampshire primary by a landslide in 2016, led in four polls released on Sunday, each of which had the moderate Buttigieg in second followed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and then former vice president Joe Biden.
“I think we have an excellent chance to win,” Sanders told CNN as he started 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 USD25 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, he said he was “building the movement that is going to defeat Donald Trump,” boosted by donations from some two million people.
Both Buttigieg and Biden – whose status as national frontrunner for the nomination was shaken by taking fourth-place in Iowa’s caucuses – said it would be much harder for the party to defeat Trump with Sanders.
The senator’s position at the very left of the American spectrum – with programmes like extending the Medicare programme to all Americans – have been seized on by the president, 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 with Sanders than a more moderate candidate, with Biden similarly telling ABC it would be “incredibly more difficult”.
But the senator has shrugged off criticism he is too radical to beat Trump, pointing to his enthusiastic support among young voters.
The president, fresh from being acquitted at his Senate impeachment trial, held a large rally in New Hampshire for his devoted supporters yesterday as he seeks to overshadow the Democratic primary today. As Buttigieg has risen from practical anonymity, he has faced criticism – including in a cutting ad 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 the eventual nominee would have to perform well in states far more diverse than predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire.