A more combative Biden works to stave off collapse after Iowa letdown

The caucus results were a blow to the national Democratic front-runner, raising the stakes for him in New Hampshire and Nevada: Score a win to stay viable.

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By Sahil Kapur and Mike Memoli

NASHUA, N.H. — Iowa may have been a “gut punch” for Joe Biden, but the next two states could deliver a knockout blow to his presidential bid if he doesn’t deliver a better performance.

The former vice president has grown more combative with his main Democratic rivals this week in an attempt to shore up his support in primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada, where victory is far from assured. Going 0 for 3 would risk shattering the front-runner status Biden has held nationally, and raise questions about his unique “electability” against President Donald Trump — the central argument of his candidacy.

And so on Wednesday, Biden ripped into Pete Buttigieg as “a risk” because of his inexperience, and blasted Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialist” label as lacking viability in a general election. "Donald Trump is desperate to pin the label of ‘socialist’ on our party. We can’t let him do that," Biden told voters at a campaign event in New Hampshire this week.

Sanders and Buttigieg were neck-and-neck for the lead in Iowa with 97 percent of the vote counted as of Thursday morning, with Elizabeth Warren in third place. A warning sign for Biden was that Iowa voters weren’t buying his “electability” pitch — he was in a distant fourth place even as two-thirds of caucusgoers said in an NBC News entrance poll that defeating Trump was a bigger priority than ideology.

“I’m not going to say anything negative about the vice president, but if your rationale is electability, then you have to win elections,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders.

The feistier performance from Biden on Wednesday came after a 36-hour period in which his campaign sought to take advantage of the botched reporting results process in Iowa, to cast doubt on a poor finish. His lawyer issued a letter laying the groundwork for potentially contesting the result, while his top aides tried to spin what few positive outcomes they had. Ultimately, they settled on embracing the possibility of a comeback — a narrative New Hampshire has often embraced.

“I'm going to fight for this nomination and I'm going to fight for it here in New Hampshire and in Nevada and then South Carolina,” Biden told supporters Wednesday in Somersworth, New Hampshire. “I'm counting on New Hampshire. We are going to come back.”

Recent polls paint a muddled picture of New Hampshire. A Boston Globe/Suffolk survey found Sanders leading, with Biden and Buttigieg 10 points behind, tied for second place. A Saint Anselm College poll showed Sanders and Biden tied for the lead.

Biden advisers insist he still has a path forward. Their argument largely rests on strong showings in Nevada and South Carolina to build momentum into Super Tuesday on March 3, where his current advantage with black voters could translate into the first real delegate infusion.

“The vice president has argued he can put together a diverse coalition, and I think that will be a central question in states like Nevada,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the influential liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

If Biden loses steam by South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary, some in that coalition could look elsewhere — Sanders and Warren have shown potential with African American voters, as has billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is swarming the airwaves with huge amounts of advertising dollars.

Marc Feraco, 58, of Milford, New Hampshire, is the type of voter Biden should worry about.

"I like Biden. I like Biden from '88, when he ran. But I just don't know if he can get over the baggage," said Feraco, who's undecided but currently believes Bloomberg — who is not on the ballot in New Hampshire on Tuesday — is the most electable because he can “play in the dirt with Trump.”

Biden advisers had hoped the final results in Iowa would help crystallize a choice for Democratic voters between the more progressive wing led by Sanders and what they viewed as the broader centrist coalition of the party helmed by Biden.

In the closing weeks of the Iowa campaign, surrogates appearing with Biden pressed the question of which candidate at the top of the ticket was most likely to help carry the entire party to victory, especially in swing and red-leaning congressional districts.

“The nominee has to be able to unite the party and then the country. If you can't unite the party, you got a real problem,” Biden told NBC News in an exclusive interview days before the caucuses.

Buttigieg’s strong showing makes it harder for Biden now to make the case that he’s that candidate. But in his first campaign stops in New Hampshire, he explicitly leaned into the contrast with Sanders.

Senior advisers know he needs to bounce back with a stronger showing in New Hampshire — no easy task. The campaign is again managing expectations, reminding reporters of the inherent advantage Sanders and Warren have as neighbor-state senators. But the lack of a competitive primary could drive more independent and even Republican-leaning undeclared voters to vote in the Democratic primary here, offsetting the progressive senators’ advantage.

The Biden campaign is still making final decisions about how to redeploy staff and volunteer resources it had sent to Iowa for the closing stretch. His top political advisers remained behind in Iowa to make those decisions Tuesday once the final results were clear — a process delayed by the confusion at the caucus sites Monday night.

Jennifer Palmieri, a former top aide in the Obama White House and the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, said Iowa may be a shock to Biden, even if he didn’t expect to win.

“The difference between preparing to lose and actually losing — it always feels a little worse,” she said.

But she added that Biden’s strong African American support may yet save him because there’s no obvious alternative for them.

“I don't see a natural heir,” she said. “I'm not really sure where the African American support would go.”