New Hampshire Democratic debate: New leaders Sanders, Buttigieg come under fire

Candidates aired their differences over health care and race relations ahead of the state's crucial primary on Tuesday.

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By Allan Smith

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Coming out of Iowa, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have emerged as the front-runners in the Democratic primary. On Friday, their challengers spent the better part of the debate here trying to knock them down a peg, days before the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.

The debate kicked off with several contenders taking shots at Sanders. Soon after, the fire turned on Buttigieg. In the process, the stage of seven candidates engaged in battles over health care and race, while unifying in blasting President Donald Trump.

The contest began with Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg piling on Sanders, expressing concern that a self-described democratic socialist won't be able to defeat Trump.

Asked by moderator ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos if they would be afraid of having a democratic socialist on top of the ticket in November, Klobuchar was the only one to raise her hand.

They progressed into a health care debate in which the Minnesota senator, who offered some of the sharpest jabs at Sanders and Buttigieg throughout the night, claimed Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan was unrealistic because even most Democratic senators don't back it.

Biden jumped in, saying: "Imagine you're going to unite the country, walking into the Congress and saying, 'I got this bill. It's going to provide Medicare for everybody.'"

"'I can't tell you how much it's going to cost,'" the former vice president jabbed. "'We'll find out later.'"

Sanders fired back, suggesting Biden's own health care plan will cost more than $50 trillion over the next decade. "That's the status quo, Joe," the Vermont senator said.

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Buttigieg would face the heat next. Biden and Klobuchar took him on for saying that the country needs a leader who hasn't been a part of Washington politics.

"We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us," Klobuchar said.

In her closing remarks, Klobuchar pitched herself as "not a political newcomer with no record."

The face-off was the first time the Democratic candidates have taken to the debate stage since Trump was acquitted on impeachment charges in the Senate. Three of the senator-candidates on Friday's stage voted to convict Trump on both the abuse of power and the obstruction of Congress charges.

Candidates also were asked about Republican probes into Biden's son Hunter, which appear to be ramping up with the impeachment trial having ended. Buttigieg said that effort did not concern him.

"And we're not going let them change the subject," he said. "This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or any Biden. This is about an abuse of power by the president."

"Look, the vice president and I and all of us are competing, but we've got to draw a line here," he continued.

He charged that Trump was trying "to weaponize a son against his own father" and called it "an unbelievably dishonorable thing."

Biden thanked Buttigieg for his remarks and said the effort to investigate his son was "a diversion."

"But here's the deal: whomever the nominee is, the president is going to make up lies about," Biden said. "He thinks he has free rein right now."

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Biden then called on the audience to stand up and cheer for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council official who testified in the impeachment probe and Friday was removed from his job and escorted off the White House grounds.

"And by the way, Col. Vindman got thrown out of the White House today," Biden said. "I think we should...be pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh. I think we should all stand and give Col. Vindman a show of how much we supported him. Stand up and clap for Vindman."

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered.

Much of the second hour was dominated by exchanges on race. Buttigieg was asked why, when he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, there was an increase in black arrests for marijuana possession. He said "we adopted a strategy that said drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder."

"These things are connected," he continued. "But that's the point. In order for us to prevent violence and remove the effects of systemic racism, not just from criminal justice but from our economy, from health, from housing and from our democracy itself."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was asked if she thought Buttigieg's answer was good.

"No," she responded.

"You have to own up to the facts and it's important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system."

Warren pointed to a need for "race-conscious laws" in housing, criminal justice, education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Businessman Andrew Yang cut in, saying, "You can't regulate away racism with a whole patchwork of laws that are race-specific." He then promoted the need for his pledge of providing all American adults with $1,000 a month, saying it was championed by the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

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As the debate continued, billionaire Tom Steyer said he was for slavery reparations and turned the conversation to Biden, saying that he should disavow comments made by a surrogate about one of Steyer's backers that some black South Carolina lawmakers said were racist. Biden said he spoke with that surrogate, South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, and that he believed the lawmaker was sorry. Biden also pointed to his having "more support in South Carolina in the Black Caucus and the black community than anybody else."

"Double what you have or anybody else has," he continued.

Soon after, Steyer's campaign sent out a release titled: "At Debate: Steyer Calls on Biden to Disavow SC Rep. Harpootlian’s Trump-like Racists Tactics"

Sanders jumped in during one of Steyer and Biden's back-and-forths, saying, "We have a racist society from top to bottom, impacting health care, housing, criminal justice, education — you name it."

The debate shifted to the influence of money in politics. At one point, Sanders chastised Buttigieg for having "40 billionaires" contribute to his campaign.

"We are going into the fight of our lives," Buttigieg responded. "Donald Trump, according to news reports, and his allies raised $25 million today. We need to go into that fight with everything that we've got."

On stage are Biden, Sanders, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Warren, Yang and Steyer. The debate was hosted by ABC News and Apple News and is being held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.

Recent polling shows Sanders ahead in the state, followed closely by Buttigieg. Warren and Biden are further back and tied for third, according to the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls.

At the onset of the debate, Biden conceded he was likely to disappoint in New Hampshire after finishing fourth in Iowa.

"I took a hit in Iowa, and I'll probably take a hit here," he said.

The debate came after days of chaos stemming from the Iowa caucus as results were delayed after what organizers said was a problem with a new smartphone app built to report the totals. The state party said problems with reporting those results were partly due to "coding issues" with the app.

Although the Iowa Democratic Party has now reported 100 percent of the total, an NBC News Decision Desk review of the data found that the totals are rife with potential errors and inconsistencies that could affect the outcome of the election, and the Democratic National Committee has called for a recanvassing. As it stands, Buttigieg was reported to have finished with 26.2 percent of the state delegate equivalents, while Sanders finished with 26.1 percent.

Both candidates have claimed victory.

Allan Smith

Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.

Mitch Felan contributed.