Two moderates, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, diverge on strategy to win

Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have the same goal: emerging from the Iowa caucuses as the moderate alternative to progressive rival Bernie Sanders. But they're deploying increasingly divergent strategies to get there.

Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have the same goal: emerging from the Iowa caucuses as the moderate alternative to progressive rival Bernie Sanders. But they’re deploying increasingly divergent strategies to get there.

While Biden spent Thursday laser-focused on his consistent campaign message of drawing a contrast with President Donald Trump on character and morality, Buttigieg for the first time called out his opponents by name. At a campaign event in Decorah, Buttigieg dismissed what he characterized as Biden’s assertion that it’s not time to “take a risk on someone new” and argued against what he said was Sanders’ pitch for “a kind of politics that says you’ve got to go all the way here and nothing else counts.”

“History has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Donald Trump, who is new in kind,” the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said.

Meanwhile, in Waukee, Biden leaned into his critique of the president’s temperament and outlined the contrast he’d make with the president in the general election on policy issues including health care and climate change.

“In November, America will have the chance to answer the question: Does the character of a president matter?” Biden said. “I don’t believe we are the dark, angry nation that Donald Trump sees in his tweets in the middle of the night.“

The fighting comes as moderates have struggled to unite behind a clear standard-bearer. While the former vice president remains atop the field in many national polls, his support has slipped some in the early primary states, and he heads into Monday’s Iowa caucuses without a commanding lead over the field. Buttigieg and even Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both of whom have framed themselves as moderate consensus builders from the Midwest, have had bigger crowds than Biden at events across Iowa over the past week and believe they have an opportunity to peel off some of his support in the final days.

And with Sanders gaining traction in Iowa, there’s a growing sense of urgency for moderates to come out of the first few primaries united behind a candidate.

“There’s just not enough fear out there yet (about Sanders), and I worry if he looks extremely strong after Iowa or New Hampshire, then it might be a little too late,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Buttigieg has hesitated until now to criticize his opponents by name, though he did repeatedly question Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren last fall on how she planned to propose financing a policy to provide health insurance to all Americans.

And while his pivot to associating Biden and Sanders specifically with the “arguments from before” was noticeable, Buttigieg’s aides signaled that a pivot to a more direct contrast between the candidates was long-planned as he has approached the dramatic closing of the competitive Iowa campaign.

The final thrust, at least as long as Buttigieg moved within contention in Iowa, was to turn questions of doubt, which he faces as a 38-year-old former mayor of a city of 100,000, on its head by making the better-known candidates seem risky.

It’s a way especially of setting himself apart from Biden, whom Buttigieg’s team sees voters considering as well as the younger newcomer in the still-fluid race for Monday’s caucuses.

Biden, for his part, remained largely focused on Trump on the trail Thursday, only hinting Buttigieg’s comments were on his mind when he issued a warning to voters at his second campaign stop.

“We can’t let this Democratic race slide into a negative treatment of one another. … The temptation is too much for some,” he noted, a reference perhaps as well to Sanders, who has attacked Biden over his Iraq War vote and support for reforming Social Security in recent weeks.

“We have differences,“ Biden added. “We can argue about these differences. We have to be able, when we come out of this, to unite the party.”

But asked directly by reporters about Buttigieg’s comments during a brief stop for ice cream in Pella, Biden brushed them off, suggesting that his opponent may be looking for an edge in the vote.

“I don’t know what Pete’s talking about. He’s a good guy, and I’m not gonna get into _ he must be deciding things are getting a little tight,” he said with a smile.

Asked what he saw as his biggest contrast with Buttigeg, however, Biden noted, “I’ve gotten more than 8,600 votes in my life” — a reference to the fact that Buttigieg won his 2015 mayoral race with just over 8,500 votes.

The refusal to engage with his opponents on the stump reflects a long-standing strategy from the Biden campaign to focus largely on drawing a general-election contrast with Trump on his temperament and character, which they believe highlights some of his main advantages with voters: that he’s seen by many as the strongest Trump challenger and that voters can connect with Biden on a personal, emotional level.

Iowa Democratic strategist Matt Paul, who ran Hillary Clinton’s Iowa campaign in 2016, said he was “surprised” it’s taken the candidates this long to go after one another by name — and he warned that Buttigieg’s comments could backfire.

“I’ve actually been surprised, with this many people in the field, with a race as undefined and as fluid as it’s been, that others didn’t try and find that contrast earlier. It’s dangerous to roll out contrasts this late because you do have to be careful, and in Iowa _ especially if it gets personal _ there tends to be blowback,” he said.

Indeed, some voters at Biden’s events said they didn’t like the negativity among Democratic candidates. Patricia Cooke, a 75-year-old retiree from Newton who had been deciding between Biden and Buttigieg but leaning towards Biden, compared Buttigieg’s comments to when Warren sparred with Sanders on stage at the last debate, which she said made Warren look “small.”

“I don’t like that. it just doesn’t make them look good. They should focus on Trump,” she said.

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