final grades
final grades

By Kevin Landrigan New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER — Voters have until Tuesday to decide what to make of all the fireworks, personal confessions, one candidate’s early concession and stark policy differences from Friday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate.

Elections won or lost by big debate moments are the exception in New Hampshire presidential primary lore, not the rule.

Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Mr. Green, I paid for that microphone” doesn’t happen every four years — or even every 12 years.

But Friday’s two-plus-hour ABC News production on the campus of Saint Anselm College made clear what the candidates must do to beat expectations in the first-in-the-nation primary.

Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn native and independent Vermont senator, has had the easiest assignment in the run-up to Tuesday.

As the guy who thumped Hillary Clinton by 22 points here in 2016, Bernie Sanders simply had to be himself.

“He actually believes what he says. He’s an honest person and in politics that says a lot,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who was left out of the debate, said on Saturday.

“He has promised the American people $55 trillion in new spending. He is proud of the fact he is not paying for any of it.”

Sanders can’t and won’t duplicate his feat of four years ago, when he received 60% of the vote. That has his critics already keeping score.

“Say he wins with 30, so that means half of his support abandoned him,” said Harold Schaitberger, national president of the International Association of Firefighters, which is backing Joe Biden.

In the final week, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg went after Sanders, characterizing him as a lone wolf whose dogmatic approach to issues has translated to few accomplishments on Capitol Hill.

“I am not interested in labels,” Buttigieg said. “I am interested in the style of politics we put forward that actually, really will bring about change.”

Later in the debate Buttigieg said, “It’s not my way or the highway. We have got to bring as many people as possible into the process.”

In response, Sanders reached into his populist kit bag.

“The way you bring people together is to be for working families and the middle class, not the billionaire class,” Sanders said in a shot at Buttigieg and his wealthy fundraisers.

While remaining true to his persona, Sanders seemed to temper his approach.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., defended him against Hillary Clinton’s claim that “nobody likes him.”

“Bernie and I work together all the time,” Klobuchar said. “I don’t think we are going to be able to out-divide the divider-in-chief.”

The long-serving Sanders also has shown some willingness to change.

He said his many votes against gun control on behalf of a pro-Second Amendment state were no longer justifiable after an epidemic of mass shootings.

“The world has changed, and my views have changed,” Sanders said.

Still, Sanders won’t shrink from a fight.

When former Vice President Joe Biden apologized for voting 18 years ago to support the Iraq war, based, he said, on faulty intelligence from the George W. Bush White House, Sanders said he received the same briefings as Biden and voted no.

“I listened very carefully, and I concluded they were lying through their teeth,” Sanders said.

Race remains Buttigieg’s Achilles’ heel

The 38-year-old Buttigieg has spent the final week rebutting claims he is too naïve and inexperienced to be the leader of the free world.

“As to experience, I just bring a different perspective,” Buttigieg said in a shot at Biden.

“If you are looking for the person with the most Washington establishment experience, you’ve got your candidate, and of course it’s not me.”

But Buttigieg’s record as the mayor of a city that cracked down hard on minorities with drug convictions has become a weight around his neck.

“I took a lot of heat by my police department for discussing systemic racism,” Buttigieg said.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others said Buttigieg’s response wasn’t satisfactory.

“You have to own up to the facts, and it is important to own up to how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system,” Warren said.

While often on the offensive, Buttigieg has refused to pile on to GOP calls to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter.

“No, and we aren’t going to let them change the subject. This is not about Hunter Biden or Joe Biden. This is about an abuse of power by the president,” Buttigieg said.

Biden can’t be seen as giving up

How did someone running for president for the third time make a huge unforced error with the first words out of his mouth?

“It’s a long race. I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said.

The message to his supporters? The campaign is going to lose here but will move on to fight elsewhere.

“In New Hampshire, I’m an underdog because of the fact that you know, Bernie won this place by 20 points last time,” Biden said in a broadcast interview during the final weekend.

“The neighboring senators have gigantic influence. And so I think I’m an underdog.”

The possibly premature obituary came hours after his campaign announced a post-Iowa shakeup that moved one of Biden’s most trusted aides above the campaign manager in the flow chart.

The question, as often with Biden, is whether his missteps will overshadow his better moments, one of which occurred when he urged the debate crowd to stand for Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who earlier in the day was fired and marched out of the Trump White House for his role in the impeachment.

Warren needs her nuances to be heard

The Massachusetts senator has made some of the most insightful comments of the campaign, going beyond sound bites on issues from racism to gun violence to child poverty.

Since the Iowa caucus, she has been crowded out by the focus on the three leading men — Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden.

Ironically, Warren’s best punch in her closing volley Friday was aimed at the $300 million gorilla not on the debate stage — billionaire candidate Mike Bloomberg.

“I don’t think anybody ought to be able to buy their way into nomination and the presidency of the United States,” Warren said. “I don’t think billionaires should do it, and I don’t think anybody sucking up to billionaires should be able to do it.”

Warren’s secret weapon Tuesday could be a vaunted field organization built on the foundation of nearly 200 town hall forums here.

Klobuchar solid, but will it matter?

In these final days, political observers have given Klobuchar high marks for coming across as a moderate who gets results.

She clearly staggered Buttigieg for his comment that the Senate impeachment trial was “exhausting” and he would rather watch cartoons on TV.

“It is easier to go after Washington. That’s an easy thing to do,” she said. “It is much harder to lead. We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us.”

Even more than Warren, Klobuchar has often not been treated by the national media as a top-tier candidate.

Consider: She was fewer than 1,000 votes behind Biden for fourth in Iowa but hasn’t received half the media attention he has.

Steyer’s approach: Nothing to lose

The California billionaire and environmental activist had been that nice, soft-spoken guy at the end of the line of candidates in past debates.

But Steyer was amped up Friday night, which won him more time than all the candidates except Sanders and Buttigieg.

“We are going to have to take Mr. Trump down on the economy. … He’s going to beat us unless we can take him down on the economy, stupid,” Steyer said.

“That’s why I am worried about Mayor Pete.”

Steyer said Saturday there is an urgency to this argument.

“We’ve got to change the framework of what we are talking about. The economy really matters, and Trump is beating us about it,” Steyer said, referring to a full-page Union Leader ad Friday in which the Trump campaign said, “Democrats will kill New Hampshire jobs.”

Yet after spending almost $200 million on advertising, Steyer heads into Tuesday still mired in single digits in the polls.

Yang on his own wavelength

The New York City entrepreneur started the race wanting to give every American adult $1,000 a month. Every day since has brought a unique message that ignores his competition.

Yang was the only candidate who, in his closing statement, said federal prosecutors should not pursue criminal charges against Trump when he leaves office.

“The fact is if you look around the world, the past governments that have thrown presidents in jail are developing countries,” Yang said. “Most Americans do not care about what a particular individual did.”

Yang also warned that Americans must prepare for a new economy in which addiction to technology threatens the livelihood of working families.

“The mission in this campaign has to be to disentangle economic value and human value, to say they are not the same things,” Yang said.

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