DOVER, N.H. — In Pete Buttigieg, the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls threatened by his rise see the perfect target for their core campaign arguments.
In finishing neck-and-neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders atop the Iowa caucus field, the former small-city mayor earned a measure of legitimacy he had not previously known. Naturally, his showing in the nation's first nominating contest has also brought a flurry of blows unlike anything Buttigieg has faced in the Democratic primary.
As Sanders narrowly leads Buttigieg in polls of Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary here, he has pulled the ex-South Bend, Indiana mayor into one of his signature arguments: the need to break the political system from the grip of wealthy donors. In public appearances in the Granite State over the last two days, the Vermont senator has repeatedly pointed to reports that dozens of billionaire donors have backed Buttigieg's campaign.
"We have candidates who have in some cases raised substantial sums of money from over 40 billionaires," Sanders told supporters Saturday at the Dover, N.H. city hall during a canvass training event. While calling Buttigieg a "nice" and "smart guy," he argued political change "is not going to be coming from somebody who gets a lot of money from the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry."
The former mayor has taken heat from more than just his party's liberal wing. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose hopes rest on winning some of the more moderate voters Buttigieg has appealed to, have increased their focus on the 38-year-old Midwesterner.
As both Biden and Klobuchar tout their readiness for office and policy achievements as they look for a jolt in New Hampshire's primary, they have questioned Buttigieg's White House resume. While the Minnesota senator targeted her younger rival multiple times during Friday night's presidential debate, the sharpest blow came in a video released by Biden's campaign on Saturday.
It compared Biden's role in passing the Affordable Care Act and negotiating the Iran deal to Buttigieg initiatives in South Bend such as installing lights under a bridge and regulating pet chips.
The heightened attacks on Buttigieg underscore the boost his success in Iowa gives him — and the realistic chance he has of winning New Hampshire, according to recent polling. The campaign said it raised $2.7 million in the days after the caucuses, the type of influx that, if sustained, could give him staying power in the 2020 primary.
Sanders will vie with the former mayor for a victory that could help the senator's path to the Democratic nomination. At the same time, Biden and Klobuchar want a bump after fourth and fifth-place finishes, respectively, in Iowa. They may need some of Buttigieg's supporters to sustain their campaigns.
In a statement responding to the Biden ad, Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher said "the American people are crying out for something completely different from this classic Washington style of politics."
"While Washington politics trivializes what goes on in communities like South Bend, South Bend residents who now have better jobs, rising income, and new life in their city don't think their lives are a Washington politician's punchline," he said.
The Buttigieg campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Sanders' criticism of the campaign's donors.
His campaign also highlighted responses from several mayors who have endorsed Buttigieg. They argued the Biden campaign had discounted the issues facing small cities.