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2020 Watch: On eve of New Hampshire, is Mayor Pete for real?

Feb 10, 2020, 6:25 AM
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FILE: Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to an audience during a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Dover, N.H. Buttigieg hosted a town hall meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 17 where more than 4,500 people showed up. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:

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Days to New Hampshire primary: 1

Days to general election: 267

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THE NARRATIVE

Chaos in Iowa has sparked a deep sense of anxiety among Democrats, who hoped the kickoff contest would provide clarity and evidence of excitement at the official starting line of the 2020 primary season. Results were unclear, and turnout disappointed. Instead, New Hampshire voters on Tuesday are under the weight of deepening concerns about Democratic enthusiasm and glaring flaws in their leading presidential candidates. The stakes are greatest for longtime front-runner Joe Biden and progressive powerhouse Elizabeth Warren, who cannot afford to fall out of the top two in a second consecutive contest as Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg aim to tighten their grip on front-runner status. At the same time, Amy Klobuchar threatens to break into the top tier at another candidate’s expense. Not in New Hampshire, but very much part of the race, Mike Bloomberg waits for Super Tuesday. And President Donald Trump is loving it.

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THE BIG QUESTIONS

Is Mayor Pete for real?

A former two-term vice president, a three-term Minnesota senator and a 38-year-old former small-city mayor walk into New Hampshire. Don’t tell us you predicted that the former municipal official would be a top candidate on the eve of the state’s primary. But that’s exactly what’s happening as Buttigieg appears to be cruising in the so-called moderate lane of voters seeking a more “electable” center-left candidate. The energy around Buttigieg’s candidacy is real. So, too, is the lack of it around Biden, who entered the race as the establishment favorite. At the same time, a strong debate performance on Friday has prompted a second look at Sen. Amy Klobuchar. This could end up being a dream scenario for Buttigieg and a nightmare for Biden.

Is the neighbors’ primary already over?

For much of the last year, Democrats in New Hampshire were expecting two tracks in their presidential primary: a competition between the two neighboring senators, Sanders and Warren, and a competition among everybody else. Now, polling suggests that Sanders is dominating the neighbors’ primary as Warren struggles. She insists she’s in it for the long haul, but it’s difficult to imagine her generating the kind of financial support she needs to stay in the race much longer without a stronger-than-expected finish on Tuesday.

Will turnout rebound?

Perhaps as much as the muddled mess connected to Iowa’s reporting failures, Democrats are nervous about the turnout in last week’s kickoff caucuses, which is an important marker of enthusiasm for the party. Iowa officials predicted turnout would rival 2008, when a record 238,000 people showed up for the Democratic contest. The final 2020 tally: 176,000. That hurts. In New Hampshire, longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner has projected Democratic turnout will hit 292,000, which would be slightly higher than the 289,000 Democrats who voted in the 2008 primary. Should Democrats fail to meet projections in a second consecutive contest that will call into question the conventional wisdom about Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era.

Can Trump stay out of his own way?

Trump enters the week at a new high point in his turbulent presidency. He took a vitriolic victory lap after his Senate acquittal, celebrated another strong employment report and cheered on Democrats’ disarray. Gallup reported his approval rating at 49%, which for any other president would be decent, but it actually marks the polling firm’s highest number for Trump’s entire presidency. But Trump has a talent for getting in his own way when times are good. Democrats are hoping for another unforced error, even as the reality begins to set in that the Republican president is well-positioned to win reelection.

Will the case for Bloomberg grow?

Democrats may be in disarray, but we know of at least one who’s feeling pretty good right now: Bloomberg. People scoffed at the New York billionaire’s plan to skip the first four four primary contests, but all of a sudden we’re starting to hear from some actual voters — not political pundits or donors — who see Bloomberg as a viable long-term option. The former New York City mayor, of course, has faced virtually zero scrutiny as a presidential candidate, having been excluded from presidential debates and avoiding tough questions from voters at his highly produced events. But for those Democrats concerned about a 2020 field led by Sanders and Buttigieg, Bloomberg’s stock is ticking up.

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THE FINAL THOUGHT

Warren has suddenly become an afterthought in the 2020 primary, even after finishing a strong third in Iowa. The stakes are enormous for the Massachusetts senator on Tuesday. With a home-field advantage, she was supposed to compete for the top spot in New Hampshire. Yet if polls are to believed, she’s slipping dangerously. If she can’t win in New Hampshire, where can she?

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2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.

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Follow Peoples at https://twitter.com/sppeoples

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Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

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2020 Watch: On eve of New Hampshire, is Mayor Pete for real?