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Gloves off in US Democratic race on eve of New Hampshire vote

(AFP)

After a weekend spent trading blows, leftist frontrunner Bernie Sanders and his youthful challenger Pete Buttigieg were barnstorming New Hampshire Monday in a frantic final push for Democratic votes in the state’s decisive White House primary.

Eager to upstage the Democrats, President Donald Trump has summoned his supporters to an election eve rally of his own in Manchester, New Hampshire, promising “big crowds.”

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“Want to shake up the Dems a little bit – they have a really boring deal going on,” he tweeted.

Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote looms as a decisive test for Democrats hoping to challenge Trump in November, especially for former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren whose campaigns appear to have hit a wall.

Sanders, the 78-year-old senator from neighboring Vermont, appeared to have an unassailable lead in the state, whose primary he won by a landslide in 2016.

The RealClearPolitics polling average showed him at 28.8 percent on the eve of the vote.

His moderate rival Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was second with 22.3 percent. On Sunday, he was proclaimed the winner of last week’s Iowa caucuses, but an array of problems in that lead-off nominating contest undercut his narrow victory over Sanders.

As the frontrunners did battle, a late surge lifted Amy Klobuchar’s fortunes, with two new polls showing the senator from Minnesota vaulting past heavyweights Biden and Warren to notch up 14 percent support.

Recent history shows it is near-impossible for a Democrat to win the party’s nomination without placing in the top two in Iowa or New Hampshire — and in a sign of the high stakes the race has been growing more acrimonious by the day.

“Unlike other campaigns, we don’t have billionaires giving huge amounts of money,” Sanders told supporters in New Hampshire on Sunday night — in a jab at Buttigieg who he has branded the candidate of Wall Street.

His campaign, based heavily on small donors, says it raised $25 million last month.

Buttigieg pushed right back at Sanders on Sunday, quipping, “Well, Bernie’s pretty rich, and I would happily accept a contribution from him.”

Turning serious, he said he was “building the movement that is going to defeat Donald Trump,” boosted by donations from some two million people.

– ‘Incredibly more difficult’ –

Both Buttigieg and Biden — whose status as national frontrunner for the nomination was shaken by taking fourth-place in Iowa’s caucuses — said it would be much harder for the party to defeat Trump with Sanders, a socialist.

The senator’s position at the very left of the American spectrum — with programs like extending the Medicare program to all Americans — have been seized on by the president, who told an interviewer last week, “I think he’s a communist.”

Buttigieg said it would be “a lot harder” for the party to win with Sanders than a more moderate candidate, with Biden similarly telling ABC it would be “incredibly more difficult”.

But the senator has shrugged off criticism he is too radical to beat Trump, pointing to his enthusiastic support among young voters.

– Buttigieg on the up –

As Buttigieg has risen from practical anonymity, he has faced criticism — including in a cutting weekend ad by the Biden camp — for his lack of national experience and his supposed difficulty connecting with black voters, a key demographic.

“He’s not been able to unify the African-American community,” Biden said, adding the eventual nominee would have to perform well in states far more diverse than predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

After listening to Buttigieg at a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire on Sunday, Katie Morgan, 20, told AFP that he was “interesting and smart.”

But she added, “I personally prefer a candidate with a little more experience.”

Biden’s campaign was further shaken Sunday when a young woman attending his campaign event asked him about his poor performance at Iowa.

In a widely shared exchange on social media, Biden asked college student Madison Moore if she had attended a caucus.

When she nodded, he replied: “No, you haven’t. You’re a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.”

Although his campaign said it was a joke inspired by a John Wayne movie, the remark sparked consternation — capping a week of bad news for the erstwhile favorite of the Democratic race.

Also in competition is billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign. 

He is skipping the first four nominating contests, focusing instead on Super Tuesday on March 3 when 14 states vote.

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Michael Mathes, with Jim Mannion in Washington

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