The State of the Race: Handicapping the Surviving Dems

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says "Off to the gulag with kulaks, counterrevolutionaries, and other enemies of the people!" during the Politics & Eggs at Saint Anselm College New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Is this when it finally gets nasty?

The Democratic debates — and there have been eight of them so far — have been mostly staid affairs. There have been few fireworks between the candidates, and even those were premeditated hit jobs like the one Kamala Harris unleashed on Joe Biden last summer. It was a desperate move and did nothing to pique voter interest in Harris for more than a week.

Bernie Sanders has pulled enough punches — actually a replay of his huge pulled punch against Hillary Clinton and her Email Server of Doom in 2016 — that it made me wonder if he has the fire it takes to win the White House. (See the “Sanders Apologizes” link below.)

But things got real in Iowa, didn’t they? Real messed up [RIM SHOT]! Seriously, it looks like the DNC might have robbed Sanders of another win, and boosted Pete Buttigieg to get it done. Liz Warren campaign’s might have had its last (and first) hurrah in Iowa, coming in a distant third. And Joe Biden’s fourth-place finish barely put him over the 15% threshold for “viability.” Then there’s poor Amy Klobuchar. A fifth-place finish at 12% might have beaten expectations, but it didn’t garner her any delegates, and it remains to be seen if Klomentum is a thing. (Hint: Probably not.)

The Billionaire Boys didn’t contest Iowa, but eventually they’re going to have to do something more than spend money.

So I’ll repeat my question: With Friday night’s debate just hours from now and the New Hampshire primary just four days away, is this when it finally gets nasty?

Let’s run through tonight’s contestants and see where they might try to shake things up.

JOE BIDEN: Something’s got to change because whatever Biden has been doing it isn’t working. Team Biden was so rattled by his weak showing in Iowa (and sinking poll numbers in New Hampshire), that he abandoned New Hampshire and spent Thursday “gathered with his top advisers at his home in Wilmington, Del., seeking a reset and perhaps a last-ditch effort to save his candidacy.” I’ve said all along that if Biden’s South Carolina firewall holds, then he’s probably the 50% favorite to win the nomination. The thinking in the Biden campaign seems to have been, “Where else are black voters in South Carolina going to go? Cranky old Bernie? The gay guy?” Well, no — but black voters might not go to the polls at all on February 29 if Joe doesn’t provide some inspiration. The next three days could prove his last chance to do so.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Buttigieg has to prove he has appeal outside the most left-leaning parts of the whitest parts of the Midwestern suburbs. I’m not sure what to make of his momentum coming out of Iowa for a couple of reasons, not least of which is the question of whether he really won the popular vote—or did the DNC rig it for him? If the Establishment Dems did fudge the numbers, then not only is Buttigieg weaker than he appears, but the Bernie Bros are already incensed that Bernie wuz robbed again. On the other hand, as a progressive radical who can make himself at least sound moderate, he might be the most natural beneficiary of a Biden collapse. (See also: Mike Bloomberg.)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Her schtick so far is to run on her record of running winning campaigns, while encouraging unity among Dems. That’s not a recipe for fireworks tonight, and it isn’t much of a theme for a presidential contender. Klobuchar makes me think she’s the Dems’ 2020 version of Rick Santorum.

BERNIE SANDERS: High floor, low ceiling? That’s the Dems’ best hope right now, as it looks increasingly like Sanders is a real contender. Sanders in a way continues to confound. He never goes for the jugular, even when his rival Dems hand him a straight razor, tug down on their shirt collars, and say, “Cut me, bro!” And yet he wiped the floor with Biden in Iowa, and he’ll probably do it again in New Hampshire. Right now the campaign looks a lot like Sanders vs. Everyone Else, and given the fear the DNC has of him, that’s probably the case. Whether the long knives come out for Sanders tonight is maybe The Big Unknown, but if they do then it couldn’t happen to a nicer would-be totalitarian thug.

TOM STEYER: I don’t know what Steyer is doing on this stage tonight. Tulsi Gabbard outpolls him in New Hampshire, and despite flooding the airwaves he’s a distant fourth in Nevada, where Democrats will caucus on February 20. He got no momentum out of Iowa, because he didn’t campaign in Iowa. In fact, Steyer really isn’t in this thing at all until Super Tuesday, when he’s hoping that store-bought name recognition will make him the winner. He can afford to sit back and be the good guy tonight. No fireworks there. By the way, I was kidding in my first line about Steyer. We all know exactly why he’s on stage tonight: Money.

ELIZABETH WARREN: By all accounts her campaign is imploding. She has little charisma, a radical agenda, and a mien that’s nasty even when she’s trying to be nice. (Speaking of Santorum, that fellow had a similar problem, only his mien is sour instead of nasty.). I don’t know what she can do tonight that she hasn’t tried already but to little avail. Meanwhile, Buttigieg seems to be locking down quite a few voters who might otherwise have become part of Warren’s constituency of people who enjoy being talked down to.

ANDREW YANG: God bless him, he’s different. He’s nice. He seems human, as in not totally programmed for the TV cameras. He has an impressive resume, and if you hadn’t heard, he wants to give you $1,000 a month forever. If I were a New Hampshire Democrat, I’d vote for him solely on the basis of being the one guy who is both himself and likable. (Sanders meets only the first criterion.). Yang has nothing to gain by going nasty, and anyway, that doesn’t seem to be a part of his very likable persona. Maybe he’ll give me $1,000 just this month for being so nice back to him.

And not on stage tonight but waiting in the wings…

MIKE BLOOMBERG: Mini-Mike is a Democrat (again), so I guess we can’t refer to him as “The elephant in the living room.” Maybe we should go with: “The ass in the corner.” Whatever label you want to stick on him, Bloomberg is looking increasingly like the DNC’s Plan B. It’s a helluva proposition, too: “You’ve got Bernie Sanders and I’ve got $54 billion. Let’s talk.”

So how nasty will it get? We have no way of knowing in advance, but I will be making a pitcher of margaritas in advance of tonight’s debate drunkblog. Check back at the PJMedia homepage at around 7:45 p.m. Eastern/4:45 p.m. Pacific for all the fun.