New Hampshire Democratic debate: 5 things to watch

Analysis: Keep an eye on Buttigieg's ability to take a punch and more as the presidential contenders face off in Manchester.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg couldn't have planned it better.

Three days of chaos in Iowa allowed the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor to claim victory anew to voters and donors over and over again before the Iowa Democratic Party released its first full accounting of results showing him as the leader of the still-contested caucuses Friday.

He got the momentum he wanted and then some, a fact confirmed by shiny new poll numbers putting him in striking distance of first place in the Granite State. But as seven Democrats prepare to meet on a debate stage Friday night, Buttigieg would do well to remember what boxer Mike Tyson said about gaming out strategy.

"Everyone has a plan — till they get punched in the mouth," Tyson said.

Buttigieg figures to be at the center of the ring, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who won the popular vote in the first and second "alignments" of the Iowa caucuses and is the polling leader in New Hampshire. Sanders' campaign says there were enough discrepancies in the arcane "state delegate equivalent" counts that no one will ever know what the real tallies should have been.

Backers of former Vice President Joe Biden, who finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa, are looking for signs that he can bounce back. Party insiders are having discussions about how to stop Sanders if Biden drops out of the race — or if he stays in and doesn't prove viable for long.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who came in third in Iowa but has slipped to fourth in polling in New Hampshire, needs to find traction at a time when the big headline about her campaign Thursday involved six women of color departing her Nevada operation over workplace issues.

The four candidates will be joined by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who picked up a single delegate in Iowa; billionaire Tom Steyer; and businessman Andrew Yang, following Thursday's reports he fired a raft of staffers after a poor showing in Iowa.

Here are five things to watch in Friday's ABC/Apple News/WMUR debate in Manchester, New Hampshire:

1. Seeking a leader

President Donald Trump is on cloud nine. He was acquitted by the Senate. His State of the Union got under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's skin enough that she tore up her copy of the speech behind him when he was done. The Democrats' debacle in Iowa made them look completely lost. And he held what amounted to a party campaign rally in the White House on Thursday.

The Democrats might be able to defeat him just on the strength of opposition to what he's doing. But he looks pretty strong right now. After a year of campaigning and a caucus in which none of the candidates earned a percentage as high as the top three finishers in 2008, it's not clear that the Democratic field has a leader who can direct a campaign and a party that matches up against Trump with its own unified vision. Will that leader start to emerge Friday?

2. Buttigieg's messaging challenge

While he has to expect a lot of incoming fire from his rivals — and from debate moderators now charged with helping vet the new "it" candidate of the primary — Buttigieg also has a complicated set of messages to deliver.

He'll continue to try to cast himself as a next-generation change candidate who rejects not only the Washington ways of Biden, Sanders and Warren but can also bridge the divide between Sanders on the left and Biden's centrist wing.

But he also has to try to communicate to the white working-class voters who are the foot soldiers of New Hampshire's Democratic Party, while setting himself up to try to gain traction with voters of color in Nevada, South Carolina and beyond. If he can't do that, New Hampshire could be the beginning of the end.

3. Does Sanders think he's already beaten Biden?

Biden told voters this week that he took a "gut punch" in Iowa. He's been knocked down before and come back, he said. But the truth is, that was his best showing ever in three tries in the Iowa caucuses. He's lacked energy on the stump, and he probably needs a big performance to show he's capable of slugging it out over the course of a long campaign.

Sanders has long treated Biden as the main obstacle in his path to the nomination, taking his biggest swings at Biden's record and platform. How Sanders treats Biden in this debate — whether he continues to hammer the former vice president or leaves him alone — will demonstrate whether Sanders thinks Biden has a comeback left in him.

4. Fading close to home

This was supposed to be a stronghold for Warren. But she's barely registering in double digits in recent surveys, as Buttigieg has surged and Sanders has remained steady in the pole position. She is sure to be asked about the women who left her campaign, as she was Thursday, and her answer could be crucial in upcoming states, including Nevada and South Carolina, where her performance with women of color may determine whether she has what it takes to fulfill what she says is a plan to run through all the remaining contests.

"I take personal responsibility for this," she said Thursday. "And I'm working with my team to address these concerns."

5. Voters of color

Even though this debate is taking place in a state that is 93 percent white, expect to hear the candidates speaking to voters of color even more than they have so far. That's because the next two states on the calendar — Nevada and South Carolina — have significant Hispanic and black populations, as do many of the states that follow them on Super Tuesday in early March.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in the middle of last month showed Sanders leading nationally among Hispanic voters with 30 percent, followed by Biden at 22 percent and Warren at 11 percent. Among black voters, Biden led at 36 percent, followed by Sanders at 13 percent and Warren at 9 percent. The upshot: There appears to be a lot of room for these candidates to do more to attract voters of color to their campaigns.