Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders face-off in fight neither saw coming

He spoke glowingly of Sanders’ candor and conviction in an essay that would earn the teenager top honors in an essay contest.

Flash forward to 2020, and Buttigieg is locked in a tense primary fight with the man he once praised. Sanders has refocused some of his attacks on the former mayor, the latest business-friendly, moderate stand-in for the political establishment, while Buttigieg now finds himself in the awkward position of lobbing grenades at the Vermont senator.

In the crowded field of Democratic candidates, it’s a rivalry neither of them expected.

Sanders spent most of January homed in on Joe Biden, hammering the former vice president over his record on social security, foreign policy and trade. And, for his part, Buttigieg targeted Elizabeth Warren throughout the fall, even at one point saying that he was in a two-way race with her in Iowa.

But the dust and delegates have settled in Iowa, leaving Warren and Biden in third and fourth place, respectively, and Sanders and Buttigieg in a virtual tie at the top. Polls now show the Vermont senator and the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor heading into Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire as the favorites.

This rapid reordering of the primary’s top tier has forced Sanders and Buttigieg to redirect. Sanders has pointed to Buttigieg’s wealthy donors, while Buttigieg has questioned Sanders’ ability to help downballot candidates and unite the party.

Despite the recent lash of pointed rhetoric, Sanders and Buttigieg still feel like accidental rivals.

Sanders turns from Biden to Buttigieg

Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, Saturday, February 8, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Since Iowa, Sanders has largely ignored Biden and trained his fire on Buttigieg, whose billionaire donors have become an instant staple of his stump speech.

The initial wallop came on Friday morning, at a Politics and Eggs breakfast in Manchester, where Sanders read off a series of headlines heralding Buttigieg’s popularity with billionaire donors. Later in the day, aides passed around pieces of paper with a mashup of the stories — including one from Forbes that read, “Pete Buttigieg has most exclusive billionaire donors than any Democrat.”

In the past week, Buttigieg has thrown elbows too, stamping Sanders as a hypocrite — in fundraising emails and text messages to supporters — for accepting the support of “dark money groups,” including the organization Sanders formed after the 2016 primary, Our Revolution.

“I like Pete. He is a smart guy. He is a nice guy,” Sanders said on Sunday in Dover. “But if you are serious about political change in America, that change is not gonna be coming from somebody who gets a lot of money from the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry. No one really believes that you’re gonna take on the pharmaceutical industry when they give you massive amounts of money.”

Buttigieg responded during Friday night’s debate.

7 takeaways from the Democratic debate in New Hampshire

“I have been very clear on both my record, where I have sued pharmaceutical companies, and what I’m campaigning for, that includes raising wages and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy,” he said before ribbing Sanders, whose personal net worth rose in recent years after his book became a best-seller. “As the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire, I know a thing or two about building a movement, because mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not exactly an establishment fundraising powerhouse.”

Buttigieg, since Iowa, has also struck a more aggressive tone when discussing Sanders.

Hoping to sow doubt in Democratic voters, he has suggested the Vermont senator would be a drag on downballot races and, echoing the angst of some of his supporters, questioned Sanders’ ability to unify the party ahead of a November showdown with President Donald Trump.

“I respect Senator Sanders,” Buttigieg said in Salem. “But in a moment like this, when the message goes out that you’re either for a revolution or you must be for the status quo, most of us don’t know where we fit, and would rather be part of a movement that makes room for all of us. This is a moment to come together.”

It’s a message Buttigieg re-upped in another fundraising email on Monday, when he blasted Sanders for pushing “the kind of my-way-or-the-highway politics that’s polarized the country.” Sanders, at an event in Manchester that morning, dug into Buttigieg again.

“Even in the newspapers today, you can see candidates conferring with their donors,” Sanders said, before directly addressing his supporters. “You are my donors. We don’t go to rich peoples’ homes and get advice from millionaires and billionaires who are raising all kinds of money.”

Reconciling the past

Pete Buttigieg and Sanders take a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Buttigieg put a different spin on Sanders’ ideological commitment in his award-winning 2000 essay for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest.

“Fortunately for the political process, there remain a number of committed individuals who are steadfast enough in their beliefs to run for office to benefit their fellow Americans,” Buttigieg wrote then. “Such people are willing to eschew political and personal comfort and convenience because they believe they can make a difference. One outstanding and inspiring example of such integrity is the country’s only Independent Congressman, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.”

Asked about those words during a 2017 interview on “The Axe Files,” former top Obama strategist David Axelrod’s podcast, Buttigieg praised Sanders for his “conviction politics,” arguing they made him an effective messenger with independents and Republicans.

“I like to say, I’m like a hipster. I like to say that I knew about him before he was cool,” Buttigieg said. “Not a lot of people were talking about Bernie Sanders (in 2000).”

A few years and one fiercely contested primary contest later, Buttigieg and Sanders are talking an awful lot about one another. Buttigieg was serenaded at a party dinner on Saturday night with chants of “Wall Street Pete” by the Vermont senator’s supporters.

“Mayor Buttigieg was right in 2017,” Sanders spokesman Mike Casca said of Buttigieg’s interview with Axelrod. “Sen. Sanders has a record of bipartisan achievement that dates all the way back to his time as mayor of Burlington. He’s always advocated for policy change from a place of conviction. Others? Not so much.”

During a CNN town hall last week, Buttigieg was asked how reconciled the praise of Sanders in essay with their current clashes.

“What I really admired about Senator Sanders, and still do, is his consistency and willingness to say exactly what he believes,” Buttigieg said. “It doesn’t mean I agree with him. I didn’t agree with him on everything then and don’t agree with him on everything now.”

Buttigieg under fire from both sides

Buttigieg speaks during the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

For Buttigieg, the back-and-forth with Sanders is playing out like a Greek tragedy — or comedy, depending on where you stand — amid a less quirky pile-on from his moderate rivals, who have spent the last few days trying to blunt his momentum. In one of the primary’s harshest ads, Biden mocked the former mayor as a small-time politician comically unqualified for the presidency.

The intra-moderate fighting put a smile on the face of Sanders senior adviser Jeff Weaver, who on Oscar night praised the editing of Biden’s online ad, noting it was perfectly constructed to be clipped into short bites for consumption on cable news programs.

“Hats off for execution,” Weaver deadpanned before Sanders took the stage in Keene on Sunday night, offering some cheeky praise to the Biden team.

The sudden focus on Buttigieg has caught even some Sanders supporters in New Hampshire — and around the country — by surprise.

Buttigieg said on Sunday he considered deficit reduction a priority, even though the issue is “not fashionable in progressive circles.” The argument was hardly a new one; he’s been making it for months. But when the comments were highlighted in a story that afternoon, the online left pounced, as if responding to a new development, and slammed the mayor for using — in their view — Republican talking points.

At the Sanders rally in Keene, a handful confessed to not having paid much mind to Buttigieg before last week. Others were complimentary, if ultimately wary of the young candidate.

“Buttigieg is very impressive, he just doesn’t have experience,” said Elizabeth Duffy, 57, who drove about an hour south with her husband to see Sanders in Keene. “What worries me (about Buttigieg) is he’s been changing with the sort of demographic or consensus. Bernie doesn’t do that; he sticks by what he believes in and I feel like Buttigieg is open to change in a way that I don’t trust as much.”

Though they aren’t aiming their messages at the same voters, the depth of the primary field means that defections from Sanders’ base — even if they don’t go to Buttigieg — could help the former mayor on Tuesday night.

At a Buttigieg rally this weekend, also in Keene, Judy Lundahl and Christine Benson, two 71-year old New Hampshire residents, stood near the back of the room waiting for the candidate to speak.

Both of the women voted for Sanders in the last primary — and both are planning to cast their ballots for someone else four years later.

“I don’t want to diss Bernie,” Benson said, “but the white men haven’t done the best job.”

Benson likes Buttigieg, but is likely going to back Warren on Tuesday. Lundahl is undecided between the two, whose support also overlapped in Iowa.

“I’m looking for somebody who’s got some new ideas,” said Lundahl, “who has some enthusiasm from the next generation that is going to hopefully solve some of the problems we have, that my generation and the generations before have created.

Lundahl said that she gave Sanders a shot this time around, but, after months of deliberation, decided to go elsewhere — and threw away one of his 2016 campaign t-shirts to make it official.

“That was four years ago,” she joked. “I put it in my rag bag.”

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