Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg locked horns in their fight for the US Democratic presidential nomination Sunday as they scrambled for votes with just two days to go before New Hampshire's closely-watched primary.
The 78-year-old Vermont senator and the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana came top of the first contest in Iowa -- marred by messy confusion about the result -- giving each momentum as Democrats seek a candidate to take on Donald Trump in November.
Sanders, a leftist who won the New Hampshire primary by a landslide in 2016, led in four polls released Sunday, each of which had the moderate Buttigieg in second followed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and then former vice president Joe Biden.
‘I think we have an excellent chance to win,’ Sanders told CNN as he started a final push on the ground in the small northeastern state.
With the primary season underway in earnest, earlier collegiality among Democrats has fallen away.
‘I am running against a candidate, Pete Buttigieg, among others, who has raised contributions from more than 40 billionaires,’ Sanders told CNN. ‘Our support is coming from the working class of this country.’
His campaign, based heavily on small donors, says it raised $25 million last month.
Buttigieg, appearing separately on CNN, turned aside the billionaire charge, quipping, ‘Well, Bernie's pretty rich, and I would happily accept a contribution from him.’
Turning serious, he said he was ‘building the movement that is going to defeat Donald Trump,’ boosted by donations from some two million people.
- 'Incredibly more difficult' -
Both Buttigieg and Biden -- whose status as national frontrunner for the nomination was shaken by taking fourth-place in Iowa's caucuses -- said it would be much harder for the party to defeat Trump with Sanders.
The senator's position at the very left of the American spectrum -- with programs like extending the Medicare program to all Americans -- have been seized on by the president, who told an interviewer last week, ‘I think he's a communist.’
Buttigieg said it would be ‘a lot harder’ for the party to win with Sanders than a more moderate candidate, with Biden similarly telling ABC it would be ‘incredibly more difficult’.
But the senator has shrugged off criticism he is too radical to beat Trump, pointing to his enthusiastic support among young voters.
The president, fresh from being acquitted at his Senate impeachment trial, will hold a large rally in New Hampshire for his devoted supporters on Monday as he seeks to overshadow the Democratic primary on Tuesday.
- Buttigieg on the up -
As Buttigieg has risen from practical anonymity, he has faced criticism -- including in a cutting ad by the Biden camp -- for his lack of national experience and his supposed difficulty connecting with black voters, a key demographic.
‘He's not been able to unify the African-American community,’ Biden said, adding the eventual nominee would have to perform well in states far more diverse than predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
Buttigieg responded on ABC that ‘I'll have to work to earn that vote, just as I did in South Bend. I was returned to office by a multiracial coalition.’
After listening to Buttigieg at a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire on Sunday, Katie Morgan, 20, told AFP that he was ‘interesting and smart.’
But she added, ‘I personally prefer a candidate with a little more experience.’
In Iowa, Buttigieg won 14 delegates and Sanders 12 to carry to the Democratic convention that will choose which candidate will take on Trump -- though the Iowa count is still mired in disputes.
Recent history shows it is near-impossible for a Democrat to win the party's nomination without placing in the top two in Iowa or New Hampshire.
The results shape candidates' images and media narratives, just as voters nationwide are beginning to focus on the race.
Both Biden and Warren said they could be the exception to that rule.
But Biden's campaign was further shaken Sunday when a young woman attending his campaign event asked him about his poor performance at Iowa.
In a widely shared exchange on social media, Biden asked college student Madison Moore if she had attended a caucus.
When she nodded, he replied: ‘No, you haven't. You're a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.’
Although his campaign said it was a joke, the remark drew criticism online.
Moore later told The Washington Post that Biden had ‘been performing incredibly poorly in this race. His inability to answer a simple question from a nobody college student like me only exacerbates that reality.’
After New Hampshire, the candidates turn to Nevada on February 22, and South Carolina on February 29, both more diverse states.
‘If we win here in New Hampshire, we're going to set the pace to win Nevada, South Carolina and California,’ Sanders told a raucous rally in Keene, New Hampshire, on Sunday evening after being introduced by actor Tim Robbins.
Also in the race is billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign.
He is skipping the first four nominating contests, focusing instead on Super Tuesday on March 3 when 14 states vote.