EXETER, N.H. — The Democratic presidential candidates amplified their attacks on one another Monday in the final hours before polls open in New Hampshire, highlighting the deep divisions between the party’s left and center even as their campaigns prepared for a set of even more pivotal contests in the weeks ahead.
Yet before they could fully turn their attention to the contests looming before them, the contenders continued to clash over the muddled results in Iowa. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, requested a recanvass of last week’s tabulations, questioning the data from various precincts in a race that showed them finishing in a virtual tie.
With the extraordinary possibility of five leading candidates surviving beyond New Hampshire, and two self-funding billionaires awaiting them in later states, the contest appeared more unsettled than ever on the eve of a primary that usually ends presidential aspirations.
Many Democrats were hoping that New Hampshire’s famously independent voters would provide clarity when they cast their ballots Tuesday. But with recent polls here showing Sanders and Buttigieg ahead of the field and their three leading rivals jostling for third place with a still-undecided electorate, the top candidates each began to make plans for two more diverse states, Nevada and South Carolina, as well as next month’s Super Tuesday, believing their rivals to be fatally flawed.
Sanders is planning on visiting Super Tuesday states this week. Former Vice President Joe Biden dispatched one of his most prominent black supporters to host a “launch party” in South Carolina on Tuesday night, an effort to deflect attention from his anticipated struggles in heavily white New Hampshire. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota scrambled to send staff and get television ads up in Nevada, which is next on the primary calendar.
As candidates made their final push across New Hampshire on Monday, they sought to sharpen the distinctions with one another, especially Buttigieg and Sanders. With many establishment Democrats increasingly nervous at the prospect that Sanders could gain significant momentum from consecutive popular vote victories, Buttigieg warned that his rival’s left-wing proposals could repel the sort of voters Democrats would need to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
“Knowing how much depends on bringing Americans together, we cannot risk alienating Americans at this critical moment,” Buttigieg told a crowd that had braved a morning snowstorm to see him in Plymouth, New Hampshire. “This is where I part ways with my friend Sen. Sanders.”
Leading in every major New Hampshire poll, Sanders sought to energize his anti-establishment supporters Monday by highlighting the support Buttigieg has received from corporate elites.
“Pete seems to think that it doesn’t matter that, in his case, he raised lots and lots of money from at least 40 billionaires,” he said in Salem.
Yet even as the two New Hampshire front-runners traded fire from afar, voters here appeared to be growing increasingly intrigued by a third candidate, who until last Friday’s debate had lagged in the polls: Klobuchar.
The police in Exeter shut down entry to her town-hall-style meeting Monday afternoon, directing attendees to an overflow room, as Klobuchar took the stage and trumpeted her growth in recent New Hampshire polls and her endorsement from several of the state’s newspapers.
“As you’ve probably heard, we’re on a bit of a surge,” she said to applause. Klobuchar avoided direct criticism of her rivals but dismissed what she called “bumper sticker slogans” like “free college for all,” an obvious reference to the expansive proposals of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Even more striking was Biden’s decision Monday to drop the harshly negative attacks he had aimed at Buttigieg over the weekend.
After claiming that Buttigieg had a light resume that could imperil Democrats’ hopes of defeating Trump, and stating that “this guy’s not a Barack Obama,” Biden on Monday shifted his attention back to an opponent he’s more at ease attacking: Trump.
That recalibration may owe to his campaign’s decision to all but throw in the towel on New Hampshire, where Biden acknowledged in last week’s debate that he would probably “take a hit.” On Monday, his aides announced that Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, would hold a party in Columbia, South Carolina, to help counterprogram the New Hampshire results. Biden held a conference call with South Carolina supporters, and one of his top aides sought to highlight this state’s lack of racial minorities.
“Diverse states are going to have their say before we decide who the nominee is,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told reporters, alluding to Nevada and South Carolina, which are filled with the sorts of black and Hispanic voters who have long been determinative in Democratic nominating contests.
She is not alone in that expectation.
After decades in which New Hampshire culled the field of top-tier nominees, the top five contenders here are determined to go forward. Financial woes could change those calculations, but, for now, nearly every campaign anticipated a long primary, with a state-by-state battle for delegates lasting well into the spring.
Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders, said that as soon as New Hampshire was behind them, they would travel to some of those 15 states casting ballots on March 3.
“You’re going to see, even before Nevada, that he will be visiting Super Tuesday states,” Weaver said, citing two they had built around Nevada trips: California and Colorado. “Super Tuesday is on,” he added.
First up for Sanders: North Carolina, where he will hold rallies in Durham and Charlotte on Friday.
While the two billionaires, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, are spending the most money on the air in Super Tuesday states, Sanders is the only other leading candidate who already has a substantial advertising buy in the pivotal set of contests. Weaver said they would augment their spending as early voting starts in more of the March 3 contests.
For Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Nevada looms even larger than Super Tuesday.
Up to this point, the two Midwestern moderates have benefited from an early primary calendar focusing on small, relatively homogeneous states, and neither has yet built the kind of racially diverse national following that it will very likely take to prevail in the March primaries.
Barring a stunning upset in New Hampshire, the two campaigns view Nevada as a crucial opportunity to expand their appeal before the primary map grows to a massive scale.
Of the two, Buttigieg is better positioned in most respects, with a more prominent national profile, a stronger fundraising machine and a more developed organization in Nevada.
Yet Klobuchar has been encouraged by the apparently rapid movement in her direction in New Hampshire polls after last Friday’s debate — a shift, her allies say, that suggests she has ample room to grow in other states as voters tune in more intently to their final list of choices. There is another debate scheduled for the middle of next week, offering at least the potential for a repeat performance before the Nevada caucuses.
Klobuchar has already redeployed members of her Iowa field staff to Nevada, according to a campaign adviser, and the candidate herself plans to arrive in the state Thursday for a forum hosted by LULAC, the Latino advocacy group.
“Oh yeah, we’re going to Nevada,” she said on the way into the Exeter event. “We’ve got our staff there, we’re going to run ads there.”
The Nevada caucuses figure to be no less important for Warren, who polls suggest will finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in New Hampshire.
Indeed, on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Warren called in on Monday morning to a radio station in Las Vegas, KCEP, for an interview during drive time. Without a strong finish in the populist-leaning Western state, Warren could be hard-pressed to find another opportunity to recover the kind of political momentum that might allow her to win states on Super Tuesday, other than perhaps her home state of Massachusetts.
But Warren’s campaign has also indicated that it aims to look toward Super Tuesday even before the Nevada contest is over, and both Warren and her advisers have repeatedly signaled that they are girding for a monthslong campaign of collecting delegates and a possible convention fight.
She plans to campaign Thursday in Virginia, one of the states voting on March 3, and has already deployed one of her leading surrogates, Julián Castro, to Colorado, which votes the same day.
But even as the less well-funded candidates prepared for the cascade of states to come in the next three weeks, it was the two candidates on the party’s ideological poles who were increasingly on the minds of many Democrats.
“I’m worried about Bernie being the nominee, think it would be so destructive to the Democratic Party,” said Martha Fuller Clark, a longtime New Hampshire state senator who supports Biden.
But on a day when a new national poll came out showing Bloomberg cutting into Biden’s lead among black voters, Fuller Clark said mainstream Democrats such as herself had another, equally pressing concern on their mind.
“None of us know what we’re going to do with Bloomberg,” she said of the former New York mayor, who has already spent over $300 million on advertising. “That’s the real challenge.”