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In New Hampshire Debate, Iowa Winners Sanders, Buttigieg Get More Scrutiny


Democratic presidential candidates met onstage in New Hampshire last night, all seven - Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. But the focus was mostly on Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden, the two top finishers in Iowa and the national front-runner whose caucus showing was fourth. NPR's Scott Detrow is in Manchester, N.H. Scott, thanks so much for being with us.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

SIMON: Joe Biden came into the debate under a lot of pressure after that fourth-place finish. What seemed to be his approach?

DETROW: You know, his goal for every single debate, up until now, is to really escape without making any news, without taking too many hits. That's a great strategy when you're the front-runner. It's not a good strategy when he came in fourth place in Iowa. So he took a much different approach last night right off the bat - very first answer, criticizing both Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the two candidates who essentially tied in Iowa, starting with the fact that Bernie Sanders is someone who identifies as a democratic socialist.


JOE BIDEN: I think that's the label that the president's going to lay on everyone running with Bernie, if he's the nominee. And Mayor Buttigieg is a great guy and a real patriot. He's a mayor of a small city who has done some good things but has not demonstrated he has the ability to - and we'll soon find out - to get a broad scope of support across the spectrum, including African Americans and Latinos.

DETROW: But Biden said something really remarkable right off the top at this debate, saying that he may do poorly in New Hampshire, as well. And that's just a really stunning thing to say when you are the candidate who has based his entire candidacy on being the most electable, the person who can go up against Donald Trump, the one that voters know and respect the most. If you can't come close to winning in the first two states, that says something.

SIMON: And Pete Buttigieg got a lot of scrutiny last night, didn't he?

DETROW: He did. And that's what happens when you appear at the top of the finish in Iowa - as best as we can tell, at least. He got questions from moderators and other candidates about his lack of national experience. You know, despite the fact that the current president had a reality TV background, it's pretty extraordinary that the mayor of a city of about 100,000 is now among the front-runners for the presidential nomination. He was criticized by Elizabeth Warren and others for how South Bend's police force has treated African Americans - disproportionate arrest rates and drug charges, among other things. He also got a lot of questions about foreign policy. But that is an area where Buttigieg seemed very comfortable, repeatedly drawing on his time serving in Afghanistan. There was one moment that stood out to me when the moderator David Muir of ABC repeatedly pressed Buttigieg on whether he would have ordered a strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani as President Trump did.


DAVID MUIR: I'm asking if your national security team came to you and presented you with the opportunity, would you take the strike?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: It depends on the circumstances. It depends if there was an alternative. And it depends what the different effects would be. That's my point. This is not an episode of "24." This is a situation that requires that you actually evaluate the entire intelligence picture.

SIMON: Let's turn now to Bernie Sanders, who was the other top performer in Iowa. We heard Joe Biden say that Bernie Sanders just isn't electable. Were there other moments that he had to defend parts of his record or other criticism?

DETROW: Yeah. Biden raised some other criticisms. And this is something his campaign has raised a bit. And we also saw Hillary Clinton use this a lot against Sanders in 2016. It's the fact that as a congressman in the 1990s, Bernie Sanders voted against several gun control measures, particularly - multiple times - the Brady Bill, which established background checks. Sanders' response was that he supported assault weapons bans all along - going back to his first run for Congress, voted for one during that period - and that, for the record, he says he was representing the views of his rural state at the time but that gun violence has gotten a lot worse since then and his views have changed.

SIMON: Scott, three more full days of campaigning...


SIMON: ...Before people actually cast ballots. What are you looking for?

DETROW: Well, Tuesday night, whether they can count the votes correctly.


DETROW: And also look.


DETROW: I mean, it's hanging over everything. Does another candidate force herself or himself into this conversation? Or does this amplify the results of Iowa and make this race continue to be focused on Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders? How does Joe Biden do? And I think mostly turnout. Iowa turnout was pretty flat from 2016. And that really worried a lot of Democrats who thought that they would have a lot more energy going into this race. It's just one state. There were other issues. So I'm looking to see what turnout is in New Hampshire.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Detrow in Manchester, N.H., thanks so much.

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

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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