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Week In Politics: Which Way Will Democratic Moderates Go In New Hampshire?


Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning in the final stretch before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. And there is sniping, but they're also united by a common goal - to beat President Trump. Here's former Vice President Joe Biden making that argument at a fundraising dinner for New Hampshire Democrats.


JOE BIDEN: I've lost a lot in my lifetime, like a lot of you have. I lost my wife and daughter in an automobile accident. I lost my son to a long bout with brain cancer when he came home from Iraq. But I'll be damned if I'm going to stand by and lose this election to this man. We cannot let it happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Democrats need a nominee before they can get to that point. Last week's messy Iowa caucuses didn't winnow the race, but will New Hampshire?

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is joining us now from Manchester. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What sort of decision do New Hampshire Democrats face?

LIASSON: They face a choice between the two wings of the Democratic Party - the center-left and the left-left. And they're represented by the two people who claimed victory in Iowa - Bernie Sanders, who appears to have consolidated the left wing of the party with the same message that he had in 2016. Here's what he said last night.


BERNIE SANDERS: I want to thank New Hampshire for helping to lead the political revolution that began four years ago, and now is the time to complete that revolution.

LIASSON: And then there's former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who's running as a Washington outsider with a message of healing divisions. He's been pushing back against Sanders' more extreme positions, like mandatory "Medicare for All" with his own voluntary Medicare buy-in for those who want it. And Buttigieg spent the day yesterday making a not-so-subtle swipe against Sanders' ability to beat Trump.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: We cannot risk dividing Americans' future further, saying that you must either be for a revolution or you must be for the status quo. Let's make room for everybody in this movement.

LIASSON: So polls in New Hampshire show Buttigieg as second to Sanders. This is a state - Sanders is from the neighboring state of Vermont. But New Hampshire has given Sanders a tough act to follow - it's his own - because last time, in 2016, he won by 22 points over...


LIASSON: ...Hillary Clinton, after tying her in Iowa, much as he did this time. So Sanders has set the bar for himself very high.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The old cliche - right? - used to be that there were three tickets out of Iowa. Are there more than two tickets out of New Hampshire?

LIASSON: That's a good question. Joe Biden certainly hopes so. Biden has been downplaying Iowa and New Hampshire. He's looking forward to the primaries and caucuses in South Carolina and Nevada. But there are many Democrats who believe Biden's fourth-place showing in Iowa obliterated his claims to be the most electable. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has tried to position herself as a kind of middle ground between Bernie Sanders' democratic socialism and Buttigieg's relative centrism. It's possible Warren could continue, but it's hard to see where she finds a victory.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It has, we should say, been a terrible week for the Democratic Party, right? There was the debacle with the Iowa caucuses. President Trump was acquitted by the Senate. Trump's approval ratings are up. And the candidate that they thought could beat Trump, Joe Biden, came in fourth in Iowa. How are Democrats telling you they're feeling right now?

LIASSON: They're not feeling good. You know, it's a cliche to say Democrats are bedwetters and in disarray, but the headline in Politico Playbook last week was "Democrats In Actual Disarray." It's not just that Biden, the supposedly most electable candidate, finished a poor fourth in Iowa. But to people other than Sanders supporters, Sanders' candidacy is really scaring a lot of Democrats, especially those Democrats who flipped red districts blue in 2018 and took over the House. They think Sanders is an existential threat to their reelection because he is unlikely to moderate his positions to help Democrats win in competitive districts and states.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are the establishment moderate Democrats you're talking about able to stop Sanders, or will this be like President Trump's takeover of the GOP in 2016?

LIASSON: That is the big question. You know, in 2016, the Republicans had a failure of imagination. They just couldn't coalesce around an alternative to Trump. They didn't believe he'd get the nomination. Will that happen with Sanders? Unclear. Some things are different. Trump, remember, was ideologically amorphous. Was he a moderate, a conservative, a businessman who would make deals across the aisle? Sanders, on the other hand, is one of the most ideologically defined politicians in America. He's been saying the same things for 40 years. And many of the things he's calling for, whether it's mandatory Medicare for All or taxing everyone to pay for it, are majority unpopular positions in battleground states.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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