Klobuchar's bronze is gold as Democrats awaken to a scrambled field

Analysis: Buttigieg had a chance to beat Sanders, but Klobuchar's late surge cost him victory and needed attention.

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By Jonathan Allen

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Olympians know bronze feels better than silver. Now, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., does, too.

Finishing third in New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary Tuesday meant breathing a burst of life into her campaign and holding her most reviled rival, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to a second-place showing.

Her homestretch surge, fueled by a stellar debate performance Friday, appeared to be the key factor that robbed Buttigieg of the votes he needed to top Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The surprise star turn combined with the fading of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to catapult Klobuchar into the conversation about which bridge-the-divide candidate is best equipped to survive a long-slog campaign.

"The two of them are very likely to end up duking it out for the alternative spot between Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg," Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said in reference to the billionaire former New York City mayor, who is sitting in third place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls.

Stopping "Pete" made the night twice as sweet for Klobuchar.

That's because there's no love lost between the pair, who have scrapped repeatedly on debate stages — at times in clearly personal terms — and whose teams find it inexplicable that anyone would regard the other candidate as a serious contender for the nomination.

Klobuchar whacked Buttigieg during a debate here Friday night for dismissing her work and that of other senators in Washington, a theme she's touched on before.

In particular, she noted with disdain that he had mused about preferring to watch cartoons to the Senate impeachment trial and then compared his Washington-bashing to the presidential campaign Donald Trump ran in 2016.

"It is easy to go after Washington because that's a popular thing to do," Klobuchar said. "[It] makes you look like a cool newcomer. I don't think that's what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us. I think having some experience is a good thing."

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And on her way out of New Hampshire on Tuesday night, Klobuchar took shots at several competitors, hinting that she senses an appetite for destruction among Democratic voters looking for a champion to go up against Trump.

"I don't have that big bank account, I don't have that big name as some of the other people that are in this race, and I am not a newcomer with no political record," she said at a rally. "But what I do is get things done."

At Sanders' election night party in Manchester, some of his supporters said they were thrilled to see Klobuchar go negative on Buttigieg and damage him.

A woman named Hannah, who was decked out in a Sanders T-shirt, a hat and pins, said she was "overjoyed" by Klobuchar's attacks and suggested they "probably" cost Buttigieg victory in New Hampshire.

"And I think she's happy about it, too," she said.

Jon Madden, a software engineer in Salem, Massachusetts, was also pleased. "I'm happy to see anyone go after Pete, frankly. I just don't like him," he said. "He's an empty suit. A traditional politician."

It's Klobuchar's record that Buttigieg's allies are sure to start digging into soon. Buttigieg clearly understands the utility of the outsider position in a presidential race. While Klobuchar has years of Senate votes on high-profile national issues that can be combed through, it may be harder to familiarize voters with the matters that occupied his time as the chief executive of South Bend. Moreover, since Watergate broke the public's trust in government, the only nonincumbent to win the presidency while running as an insider was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

For now, the pair are the two hottest candidates in the ideological space between Sanders, the leader in national polling, and Bloomberg, who is fast becoming a point of fascination for establishment Democrats. Biden, who left New Hampshire before the results were in and finished fifth with about 8.5 percent of the vote, has insisted that he is staying in the race and expects to rebound in Nevada and South Carolina later this month.

"As far as I'm concerned, the race starts now," Marcus Mason, a Washington lobbyist and Biden supporter, said. "99.9 percent of African Americans haven't spoken and neither has the Latino community. Nevada and South Carolina are where our voices will be heard."

Both Biden and Warren, who finished fourth here, would like to find enough traction to compete with Buttigieg and Klobuchar in upcoming contests.

"I still don't want to count somebody like Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden out," Elrod said.

In what has been an unusual race so far, it's hard to count anything or anyone out.

The Iowa caucuses produced no true winner after a technological fiasco, and Sanders and Buttigieg actually won the same number of delegates to the Democratic National Convention from New Hampshire. Perhaps someone will win the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses outright.

But for now, in the Democrats' version of a participation-trophy primary, Klobuchar's third-place finish amounted to a clear victory.

Sahil Kapur contributed.