Live at 8 p.m. ET: The “everyone get Pete” debate


No one’s watching tonight to see an argument about policy. Those differences, minor as they are between candidates, have already been hashed and rehashed in the umpteen previous debates. The only reason to watch is drama.

We might get some drama.

The reason, of course, is that no fewer than three credible big-name candidates are on the brink of being taken off the board 38-year-old ex-mayor Alfred E. Neuman of South Bend, a guy who’s never won statewide nor federal office, whom no one outside of Democratic podcast hosts had heard of prior to late 2018. Buttigieg seemed to have had his moment in the sun in primary polling back in December, when he led in Iowa, but then began to decline in January as Bernie Sanders surged. He’d finish a respectable third or fourth there, I figured, then again in New Hampshire and then bow out having successfully introduced himself to the national Democratic electorate ahead of a more serious run for something down the road.

Instead he tied Sanders for first on Monday (more or less) and sits one slim point behind him in New Hampshire in the latest Suffolk poll, having gained 12 points(!) in the past three days. He may very well lead the field in the next poll and win the farking primary on Tuesday night, upsetting Bernie and establishing himself as the clear center-left alternative to Sanders-style socialism.

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And if he does, he’ll utterly destroy Joe Biden’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, and Amy Klobuchar’s campaigns. Between them those three have 55+ years of service in the Senate plus Joe’s eight years as VP. And none of them might survive the month as candidates thanks to Pete “Who?” Buttigieg.

In fact, he doesn’t actually need to win on Tuesday to destroy them. A strong second behind Bernie with the rest far behind should suffice to solidify Democratic perceptions of them as also-rans, with Klobuchar likely to drop out immediately and Warren and Biden needing a miracle in Nevada. Precisely for that reason, all three should come at him tonight with battle axes, hoping to knock him back in the polls and force moderate voters to take a second look at their other options. Biden and Warren will throw roundhouses because they have to but Klobuchar may throw them because she wants to. As far back as November, reporters were nothing how much she resents Buttigieg for occupying “her” niche in the race as the low-key electable moderate from the midwest.

It’s an annoyance that has been building slowly since the summer. Asked in June about Mr. Buttigieg’s qualifications to be president relative to the female candidates in the race, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was unsparing in her assessment.

“Could we be running with less experience than we had? I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t think people would take us seriously.”…

Over the summer, a simple mention of Mr. Buttigieg’s name during a conversation in the Senate chamber between Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ms. Klobuchar was enough to make Ms. Klobuchar extremely agitated, according to witnesses.

If the agitation was extreme then, imagine what it’s like three months later after watching him rocket to the top of the field. Does Pete have any idea what’s in store for him if Klobuchar hulks out?

Only one of Buttigieg’s four rivals has reason to go easy on him tonight, and ironically it’s the guy whom Mayor Pete is battling for first in New Hampshire. Bernie has to be looking at Buttigieg’s rise as a stroke of great good luck, believing that he has more liabilities as an alternative to Sanders than any of the other three contenders. If Bernie is too old, Pete is too young. If Bernie is too radical, Pete is too inexperienced. If Bernie has a problem winning over black voters, Pete has a bigger one. If Bernie is apt to scare suburban voters, Pete might scare socially conservative and/or blue-collar ones. As much as Sanders wants to win New Hampshire, the price of doing so by damaging Buttigieg tonight might be too steep. He could inadvertently clear the way for a Biden, Warren, or Klobuchar resurgence. Better to lay off Pete and hope that he terminates the moderates, then take him on one-on-one later.

Or one-on-two, once Mike Bloomberg joins the fun and complicates Buttigieg’s bid to consolidate the centrist vote. Which will also be helpful to Bernie.

The debate starts at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. If Pete performs well tonight — and he tends to do well at these things, as his poise and obvious intelligence are 98 percent of the reason people support him — then it may cement his momentum in New Hampshire and deliver him a victory. And if it does, this’ll be the last debate at which Sanders has the luxury of ducking a fight with him. By the way, as I write this at 1 p.m. ET, Nate Silver’s model has the likelihood of Sanders winning the nomination up to 46 percent. Next is … no one, at 24 percent. That’s how muddled the centrist picture is right now.

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