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Democrats hold final debate ahead of New Hampshire primary

(AFP)

Democratic presidential candidates will tangle on the debate stage on Friday as Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg seek to turn their strong Iowa performances into a win in the next nominating contest in New Hampshire.

Both Sanders, the leftist senator from Vermont, and Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, claimed victory in the chaotic Iowa caucuses and the pair are neck-and-neck in the polls heading into New Hampshire.

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The Granite State holds a primary on Tuesday as the Democratic Party seeks to narrow down the crowded field and come up with an opponent to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

Seven Democratic candidates will take part in Friday night’s televised three-hour debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, which begins at 8:00 pm (0100 GMT).

Besides Buttigieg and Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, businessman Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang will be on the stage.

While Buttigieg, 38, and Sanders, 78, are seeking to capitalize on the momentum from Iowa, Biden is looking to limit the damage from his performance in the Midwestern farm state.

The latest New Hampshire poll spells trouble, however, for the 77-year-old Biden, who has topped national surveys since getting into the race but finished a dismal fourth in Iowa.

The Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University poll had Sanders, who won New Hampshire four years ago before losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton, topping the field with 24 percent.

Buttigieg was next at 23 percent, up from 11 percent on Monday, while Biden saw his support fall to 11 percent from 18 percent over the same time period.

– ‘Extraordinary week’ –

Amid his fading fortunes, Biden is expected to use the debate stage to step up his attacks on his rivals — Buttigieg for his relative lack of experience and Sanders for his self-described democratic socialist label.

Addressing a military veterans group on Thursday, Buttigieg, who was deployed to Afghanistan as a US Navy intelligence officer, said it had been an “extraordinary week.”

“We are absolutely electrified by the energy that we are coming here with and by the extraordinary validation of this campaign that we had Monday in Iowa,” the centrist candidate said.

“I’m also mindful and humbled by the fact that New Hampshire is not the kind of place to let Iowa or anybody else tell you what to do,” he added.

Buttigieg, who is seeking to become the first openly gay president of the United States, also called for an end to all forms of discrimination in the US armed forces.

Sanders, meanwhile, took aim at another Democratic White House hopeful who will not be on the debate stage but is looming large over the primaries — billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The media tycoon chose to ignore the early nominating contests and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising hoping to make a splash on “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when 14 states hold primaries.

“He’s entitled to run for president,” Sanders said of Bloomberg. “No problem with that. Smart guy.

“But he is spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the election. There is something wrong with that.”

– Walsh drops out –

Buttigieg and Sanders finished in a dead heat in Iowa and each claimed victory — the former mayor based on the number of delegates who will be sent to the Democratic convention in July and the Vermont senator on the basis of the popular vote.

Iowa’s already complicated caucus system was marred by an embarrassing technical meltdown that affected the reporting of the results and no formal winner has been declared.

Saying “enough is enough,” an exasperated Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez stepped in on Thursday and ordered a review of the results.

Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh announced meanwhile that he was ending his quixotic effort to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.

“I am ending my candidacy for president of the United States,” the conservative talk show host said on CNN after a dismal showing in the Republican caucuses in Iowa on Monday.

Calling Trump unfit for office, Walsh announced in August that he would challenge him for the Republican nomination but he got only 1.1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

Trump garnered 97.1 percent while another longshot Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, pulled in 1.3 percent.

After New Hampshire, the candidates turn their sights on Nevada on February 22, South Carolina on February 29 and then Super Tuesday.

Michael Mathes with Chris Lefkow in Washington

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