Democrats draw clear battle lines ahead of final sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire

Originally Published: 21 DEC 19 08:59 ET

    (CNN) -- The battle lines that will define the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary were set at the Democratic debate ‪on Thursday night with several top candidates making more aggressive moves to stand out as voting draws near.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is being tested like never before -- a reality that dominated Thursday night's debate, when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren unloaded on Buttigieg for his high-dollar fundraisers, including a recent one in "a wine cave full of crystals," and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticized the 37-year-old mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city for getting clobbered the only time he's run for office statewide.

The attacks on Buttigieg foreshadowed what's likely to be a dominant question of the next few weeks: Can he hold onto his strong position in Iowa under intensifying scrutiny?

They also revealed a split in the Democratic presidential race, which is now unfolding on two planes. There's the rush to Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with larger-than-average shares of white, college-educated voters. Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar all know those states are likely to make or break their campaigns.

Then there are candidates hoping to turn in strong performances in those two states, but not solely dependent on them, and already positioned for the contests that follow. Vice President Joe Biden has led national polls all year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remains strong and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's billions loom as a factor in larger states where voters expect to get to know their candidates on TV and online rather than seeing them in person.

The fight for Iowa

Outside of Biden and Sanders, the rest of the Democratic candidates appear to view their paths to the nomination as running through Iowa, and as a result, Buttigieg, the most recent leader in the polls there.

It's a dynamic that is likely to continue playing out on the campaign trail in early January and in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses on February 3. Buttigieg has consistently grown his support in statewide polling and used the millions that he has raised to build a formidable operation in the state with over 30 offices and 100 aides and organizers.

Buttigieg's last month has been trying, as competing campaigns have drawn the mayor and his operation into a series of fights over his use of big money donors, his three years working at the elite consulting firm McKinsey and more moderate approaches to a host of issues, including health care. The quarrels have grown nasty, especially online, where Buttigieg has become the left's biggest target.

That was crystalized on Thursday when Buttigieg took barbs from Warren, Klobuchar, Sanders and even billionaire Tom Steyer.

Buttigieg launched counter-attacks of his own on Thursday night,

"You know, according to Forbes magazine, I'm literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire," Buttigieg said in an exchange with Warren. "So this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass."

And when Klobuchar questioned his level of experience, Buttigieg shot back, "If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence's Indiana."

But there are no signs that the attacks will let up anytime soon.

"A president was impeached last night because of corruption," Warren communications director Kristen Orthman said after the wine cave exchange. "A Democratic nominee running on a defense of billionaires and lavish fundraisers in crystal wine caves, and in defense of the corrupt system that wealthy donors fuel, is a terrible risk for Democrats and very likely going to lose."

Buttigieg's team -- at least outwardly -- have welcomed the fight, arguing that it is the clearest sign the other candidates see Buttigieg was a top competitor.

Biden's enduring strength

Biden's enduring strength among black voters could be the most significant asset any candidate currently has. It's helped him dominate the polls in South Carolina, the fourth state to vote -- where a clear win would position him to then rack up delegates in Southern states on Super Tuesday.

Biden has sought to stay above the Democratic fray as much as possible -- and turned in his strongest debate yet, in part because it was Buttigieg being attacked, not the former vice president.

"I do worry about this notion that the Democratic candidates spend a lot of time attacking one another," Biden told CNN on Friday during a lunch stop in Los Angeles.

"I've tried not to do that," he said. "What I've tried to do is focus on the why I believe I'm most qualified to beat (President) Donald Trump."

Meanwhile, Sanders' political revolution rumbles ahead, with polls showing Sanders performing strongly with young voters and catching Biden among Latinos, a crucial part of the electorate in Nevada, the third state to vote, as well as California and Texas, two Super Tuesday states with the potential to deliver their winners massive delegate hauls.

Sanders' unofficial non-aggression pact with Warren hasn't eroded -- and might not unless they become the last two candidates standing.

His campaign has taken glee in the attacks on Buttigieg. It purchased -- senior adviser Jeff Weaver even wore a t-shirt with the website emblazoned on it to Thursday night's debate -- and directed the URL to an ActBlue page for donations to Sanders' campaign.

But most of Sanders' debate-stage clashes have been with Biden. Thursday night, the two battled over health care, with Sanders making the case for his "Medicare for All" single-payer system and Biden defending his vision of building on Obamacare with a government-run public option, but maintaining a role for private insurers. The exchange was the kind that benefits both of them, with Sanders appealing to the party's most progressive voters and Biden aiming for an audience of more moderate voters looking for the candidate they're sure can beat Trump.

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